Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

Deal with office criticism diplomatically

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Whenever you receive criticism from a boss or colleague, you have a choice: You may respond defensively and make an instant enemy out of someone you will have to interact with for a long time, or you may attempt to take the high road by responding in ways that defuse, rather than aggravate, tensions. Some tips on doing so:

• Respond in person. Even if you’re criticized via e-mail, respond in person, if possible. Why? Because e-mail is devoid of body language and tone of voice. In addition, angry e-mails are frequently fired off quickly without due consideration.

E-mails tend to come across harsher than in-person communications.

• Let critics finish. No matter how tempted you may be to interrupt your critic, let him finish presenting his perspective before you present yours. You will thereby avoid frustrating him and increase the chances that he will let you finish your rebuttal. You will thereby help prevent disagreements from escalating.

• Don’t hurl back accusations. Few people are willing to admit errors to anyone — let alone to subordinates. Therefore, if you defend yourself to superiors by accusing them of doing — or of not doing — something, your argument will probably only anger them, no matter how right you may be.

So instead of rebutting criticism with criticism, give wayward superiors face-saving opportunities. For example, when appropriate, consider attributing mishaps to misunderstandings or flawed procedures. And then carefully suggest ways to correct the situation.

If your boss exhibits what I call “implanted memory syndrome” and is under the mistaken impression that he provided you with some type of critical information, carefully mention your contrary recollection on the off chance that doing so will jog his memory. If that doesn’t work, let it go.

• Get to core issues. If you’re severely criticized, determine if the attack is rooted in another, larger issue. If you can’t fix the core issue, you will at least be comforted by the knowledge that “it’s them, not you.”

• Take a time out. Consider saying something like, “I’m so taken aback by what you just said that I cannot respond immediately. I’ll be back in a little while and address this issue then.”

By securing a time out, you will assure your critic that you’re not ignoring the disagreement and therefore not being insubordinate. But at the same time, you will give yourself time to organize your thoughts.

During your time out, take a walk or talk the situation over with a trusted adviser.

Then, when you’re ready, return to your critic and say something like, “If this is a good time for you to address the situation, I would like to do so.” When you resume your discussion, you will hopefully find that your response is less emotional and more logical than it otherwise may have been.

• Protect yourself. No matter how diplomatic you are, sometimes it’s impossible to find common ground and reach agreement with a superior over serious matters. If such disagreements result in major unwarranted criticism on your annual evaluation, you would be well within your rights to defend yourself.

Submit a written rebuttal to such criticism for your personnel file. That way, anyone who reviews your file will likely consider your perspective in addition to your supervisor’s perspective.