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?"
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?