Monday, January 5, 2009

Five Ways to Handle Being Personally Attacked at Work

"Excuse me, Brianna, but I was reviewing this report and it looks like there's an error in the numbers. I need you to look them over and see what you can find so I can go ahead and submit this to the client today."

"Gee, Jennifer, I doubt there are errors, but I'll look it over. I know that you can't add more than two numbers together unless you've got a calculator nearby."

"Uh...whatever. Just let me know what you find, because the boss wants an update."

"Oh, I'm sure he does. And I'll just bet you ran to him first thing to tattle that you found an error. Sounds just like something you would do."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Please. Don't play the innocent. Everyone here knows that you are such a suck-up to the boss because you're too insecure to speak up for yourself. These games you play are so juvenile."

"Games? What are you talking about? I work just as hard as anyone here and I'm not insecure!"

"Oh, please. Get a grip. You always overreact to anything anyone says. You can't even handle constructive criticism without falling apart. Don't worry -- I'll fix your problem. I'm used to it. You're such a child sometimes."

Most of us understand that criticism is part of our working life. We know that our performance is going to be judged by a variety of people, from customers to the boss to co-workers. But what happens when that professional criticism becomes a personal attack?

That's when things get tough. Because when people are sarcastic, condescending, rude or hateful, we often have a tendency to revert back to our childhoods when a sibling's taunting made us either furious or mute in disbelief and hurt. And, if others are around to witness a personal attack at work, then it seems to be even worse. We're humiliated and demoralized by our own failure to handle someone attacking us.

I interviewed several psychologists and workplace experts recently, and they all seem to agree on one thing: Personal attacks in the workplace are never about the person being attacked. They're really about the attacker.

"You're like a cardboard cutout to these people," says Sharon Melnick, a psychologist and executive coach in New York City. "You're not real to them."

Melnick was one of more than two dozen experts who responded to my press query about how to deal with personal attacks in the workplace. Much of the advice focused on realizing that you can only let the attacks hurt you if you make that choice. Still, several commented that as much as you'd like to let a personal attack just slide off you like a snake shedding skin, the truth is that when criticism takes on a personal tone ("you're so stupid") it can be damaging to us both personally and professionally.

"Personal attacks are not only rejecting. They are abusive. Unfortunately, most of us react to them with our stockpile of old hurts from earlier experiences (family, teachers, peers). It's the peers memories that significantly affect how we react at work," notes Elayne Savage, a psychotherapist. "It's hard not to take personal attacks personally. Unfortunately this leads to hours, days and weeks spent dwelling on what happened. As you can imagine, work productivity is affected significantly."

At the same time, some experts believe personal attacks are growing in intensity.

Peter Getoff, a psychologist in Los Angeles, told me that a century ago the American workplace had stricter rules of conduct, governed by the social norms that took place outside the job. "People were less likely to be strangers," he says.

That means that as communities and workplaces grew, we began working with people we didn't really know. That made it easier to challenge those social rules and not feel the repercussions for behaving badly, Getoff says.

Still, the experts agree on one thing: You are not powerless when confronted with this situation. There are steps you can take to deal with a co-worker who criticizes you personally in a professional setting. They advise you should:

1. Walk away. If you have a tendency to lose your temper when attacked, this will be tough. But responding in anger can only make the situation worse. Tell the person that "I'm not going to be talked to this way. We do need to talk, but I will talk to you about this privately later."

2. Focus on yourself. When under attack, focus to stay calm by breathing in through your mouth and out through your nose, Melnick suggests. Or, as Jodi R.R. Smith, an etiquette expert says: "Imagine the words bouncing off of you and rolling onto the floor. Visualize this person as a toddler having an all out tantrum. When they run out of steam, ask: 'Is there anything else?'"

3. Be prepared. Dr. Mark Goulston recommends pausing for five seconds after the attack and then calmly say:
* "My mind wandered for the past couple of minutes. Could you repeat what you said?"
* "You seem either angry, frustrated or at least disappointed in me. Tell what you'd like me to do differently that's reasonable and fair to both of us, and I'd be happy to do it. If you can't come up with something, it seems to me that you may want to just stay angry at me rather than make it better. That's not acceptable to me."
* "I can't hear what you're saying when you speak to me in that voice. Please speak in a normal tone of voice so I can start listening."
* "Do you really believe what you just said?"
* "Huh?"

4. Consider the source. As Melnick pointed out, the attack on you has probably been triggered by something going on in the attacker's life. Getoff agrees, and notes that the attack can be a result of many different things, including stress from an unpaid mortgage to personal problems to mental illness. And sometimes it happens because the attacker doesn't know not to do it. "(It) sounds simplistic, I know," Getoff says. "Many of us grow up with certain habit patterns ingrained in us that we owe to our families of origin. We may have been reared in a family where name-calling, yelling, bullying were accepted ways of expressing anger, dissatisfaction and managing conflict."

5. Become a better person. "As hard as it may be to accept, any disturbing behavior that you observe in another is a reflection of what you yourself have done - maybe not to the same degree or in the exact same form; but if you examine your own conduct, you will see that you have behaved similarly, perhaps toward family members, perhaps toward yourself. Now that you see how harmful the launching of personal attacks is, you can tap the motivation to deepen your commitment to stop engaging in it yourself, to be kinder and more constructive in your relationships," says Bob Lancer, an author and consultant.

While some experts recommend taking your complaints to human resources or the boss, it's clear that such a decision can have consequences: It can either make the situation better -- or worse. Whatever the decision, it's clear that with the increasing stress of layoffs, pay cuts and dismal financial news, more employees than ever may be facing a workplace that isn't always kind to the psyche.

What other suggestions would you have for someone personally criticized on the job?

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David Benjamin said...

Usually there is some build up before the attack occurs between two or more people. I've always thought the best way to handle the situation, in addition to what you have already laid out is- go in a seperate area to discuss.

Too often, 'work fights' occur in front of co-workers, customers, etc. The situation needs to be isolated as soon as possible.

Not all attacks involve the same level of severity so appropriate action is very much case by case.

The overall goal is to set up parameters for future expecations and acceptable communication channels to avoid such behavior moving forward.

Anita said...

I agree it's a good idea to go somewhere private, because it just fuels gossip and causes more problems if co-workers argue in front of the whole office. I have been in this situation before, and while I was caught off guard the first time, I was more prepared when it happened again and was better able to control my own reaction. Thanks for your suggestions.

Anonymous said...

Try to Focus on the issue:
Re-iterate the problem by taking out the personalized statement & focusing on the issue & solution (taking out the word 'You').
I find this build a good/decent relationships with anyone (even the tough ones).

When we are getting mad/upset v.s. trying to figure out what is the real issue.
I find we are just answering the question 'what does he/she means?'
So I try to train my brain to focus on the latter.

This works for me because I would be distracted to get mad/upset.

Anita said...

Great idea. I think to build on that, we have to ask ourselves if there is some merit in the criticism. Once we take out the words that make us mad or upset, is there a legitimate gripe? That's one way to turn something negative into something we can learn and grow from.

Robert Hruzek said...

Oh, man, this brings back memories of a real piece of work I knew in a past job. THE absolutely most abusive person I've ever known, bar none!

I wrote about it here, if you'd care to read it: What I Learned From a Compete Jerkbrain.

Interestingly enough, the lessons learned are very similar to yours! Great minds, and all that... :-D

Anita said...

Thanks for the link. I hope that by more people being aware of these people -- and how to deal with them -- we'll reduce some of the problems.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have any suggestions on how not to dwell on a personal attack after the occurrence? I had an encounter with another manager today who criticized my management skills, by saying I was the weakest manager in the company my career is going nowhere and it is my own fault. First, I know it isn't true and I also know her attack isn't about me (my boss butted heads with her earlier today, she is being required to do administrative work and most likely feels her job is going no where). I handled myself very well while talking to her, but went back to my office and cried. I haven't cried at work in 15 years. How do I keep this incident from affecting my sleep and ability to concentrate at work for the next few days?

Anita said...

Savvy Working Girl,
I'm going to suggest some things, but I hope other folks will jump in with suggestions.
1. Talk to someone you trust about how you're feeling. This can be a family member or friend, someone who will be empathetic, without trying to fix the problem for you.
2. Get moving. Studies have shown time and again how important it is to use physical exercise to relieve stress. Go dancing, to a gym, indoor pool, or go bowling! Do something physical that will help burn off some of your anxiety.
3. Write it down. Put down everything you're feeling. And then write all the positive things you did in the situation and review how well you handled it.
4. Look deeper. You say you haven't cried in 15 years at work, and feel you handled it well. That could mean it wasn't this particular incident that was so bad, but perhaps an indication that a lot of things are building up. Maybe things have gotten out of balance and you can see this incident as wake-up call that you need to re-balance your life.
5. Laugh. Rent a funny movie, go to a comedy club, watch stupid videos on YouTube. Laughter truly is the best medicine and can help you relieve the stress.
6. Be good to yourself and others at work. Erase a bad situation at work by replacing it with good things. Put 5-10 coins in one pocket. Every time you pay someone a compliment, move the coin to the other pocket, with the aim being to have moved all the coins by the end of the day. Buy yourself a nice flower to put on your desk. Go to lunch with friends or co-workers you enjoy. Take a walk, weather permitting. Just be good to yourself.
Finally, I know it sounds trite, but you truly do have a choice to make. You can choose to let this incident drag you down, to make you lose sleep and be miserable. Or, you can choose to focus on something else. It really is your decision, and you have the control.

Good luck, and let me know how things go.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the suggestions. I tried them all. What helped the most: I went out of my way to introduce myself to a gal at my gym. Her husband has brain cancer. After listening to her story my little problem seemed very insignificant. Also digging deeper helped significantly. In the end, I think these incidents just take time, but it sure isn't fun when you are going through it. I wrote about my experience on my blog. Thanks again.

Anita said...

Savvy Working Girl,
Thanks for sharing your experience, and your solution. What really strikes me is that instead of letting the negativity eat you up, you found a way to turn it into a positive experience. You go, girl!

Unknown said...

I realy get my kicks off people who try and put people down the aim of the game is to get you energy' a personal attack is like a game you both have lazer guns if you get shot you lose energy and it then belongs to the other person its simple but stupid game, but you can have fun with the attacker:) When your at work and your boss/who ever is throwing an attack, DONT SAY ANYTHING at all just let them stew in there own vomit, its realy fun and it make for a good day at work:) Bullys work in the same way' The most fun you can have with them is to egnor them just long enuff for it to bounce back at them, and watch them get angryer and angryer, most of the time they are jelouse of you' so just say to yourself the only real reason this person is having a go at me is because they feel out gunned and they feel intimidated by me, which is not your fault you fricken AWESOME AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA:) Have a nice day MR AWESOMR!!!!

adbomb said...

Good article that deals with different scenarios -
the best way to deflect, is to depersonalize it, and reflect it back.
Example: "I'm annoyed with you, your work is horrible and you are so annoying!"

answer: "I know it can be easy to get annoyed at work, I'm sorry you feel that way"