Companies & Industries

Rising Above Being Cut Off at the Knees


When a colleague attacks you publicly, resist the instinct to sink to their level by fighting back. You'll be amazed by the power of silence

I grew up in New Jersey, where Aaron Burr was killed in a duel. I totally get the idea of dueling. I've been mad enough, more than once in my life, to risk everything to defend my honor. Haven't you? And some of the times I've been most tempted have been at work.

There's something about the workplace, the competition for resources and power, that brings out the worst in certain people. And you know what I mean if you have ever had the dreaded experience of getting cut off at the knees during a meeting.

Here's how it happens: You're in the middle of a presentation or propounding an idea, and someone comes back with a comment that's actually more like an extended middle finger in verbal form. Let's say you're describing your marketing plan when a co-worker suggests you don't know what you're talking about or your analysis is completely off the mark.

There are a lot of variations on this kind of attack. I'm just giving you a sense of the knee-cutting experience. It's not fun. Out of nowhere, unprovoked, you've been blasted in front of your peers.

Cut That Short Fuse

Your instinct, when you get slammed in public so rudely, is to react with anger. I don't use the word "instinct" lightly. Human beings are hard-wired to deploy a fight-or-flight reflex when attacked, and since you can't very well run out of the room at the moment, you're very likely to want to fight. In fact, the first words likely to leave your mouth after being savaged by a co-worker will be some of the meanest things you can think of.

While mean and pithy and sharp would be O.K. (although still mean), the reality is that few of us, under stress, can conjure up mean, pithy, and sharp retorts to use at moments like this. So we resort to just plain mean—perhaps laced with a touch of the juvenile: "What makes you an expert?" That's why when you're struck from behind, I advise you to clamp your mouth shut and keep it that way.

Yep—clam up, and let the cutting-off-at-the-knees comment hang in the air for a moment. If you don't rush to defend yourself, chances are your co-workers will likely jump into the conversation. "That seems harsh, Carl," someone may say. Or, "What is your problem with Jill's analysis?"

The Professional Defense

Your silence in the face of a head-on assault does two things. It gives you time to think and avoid lashing out in a potentially self-destructive way. It also allows the room to take in and process the unfortunate (duel-worthy, if you ask me) criticism that's been lobbed at you, bringing no favor upon your attacker.

After a few moments—let's say 30 seconds—of silence, you can pick up your presentation where you left off. You don't need to, but if you want to, you can ask for comments, perhaps in this way: "We heard Gary's comments; does anyone else have a comment or question?"

By taking the high road, you'll show that you are unperturbed by your workmate's ill-tempered interjection. If he or she continues to heckle you, you can say, "Gary, let's talk after the meeting about your concerns." Your colleagues will be glad you took the duel off-line, for their sake.

The good news is that after having been slammed in public once, you'll know how to deal with it when it (nearly inevitably) happens again down the line. With time, you will see that the person firing the shot is most often the one who comes out of the experience looking unprofessional and ill-bred. By tempering your anger and holding your tongue, you can defend your honor without firing a shot.

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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