After the Storm: Responding to Unexpected Criticism

March 24, 2018 / Comments Off on After the Storm: Responding to Unexpected Criticism

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.
Winston Churchill

It was afternoon on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and most people in the company were getting ready to leave early for a long weekend. Suddenly someone realized that the plan that was in place to support their clients over the long weekend had a big gaping hole.

A new plan was quickly developed to fill the gap. The only problem now was how to make sure that all of the employees who would be involved in the change got the message before they left that afternoon. That meant notifying hundreds of people in a very short timeframe. Many had to be convinced to delay their vacation and some even had to change their airline tickets for later flights in order to make the necessary changes.

The woman in charge of getting out the message realized that time was of the essence and that there was no way of knowing if a person was working at their desk and would receive an email in time. She decided that the most expedient way to deal with the problem was to work with the people who were in charge of making emergency loud speaker announcements.  She also had to create messages that would inspire people to agree to change their holiday plans and not leave the company or their clients in the lurch.

It worked. Employees got on board, made the changes and saved the day.

Like me, it may seem that she would have gotten a big pat on the back for her work. But instead her boss found her and criticized her for using the loud speaker system so that everyone in the company knew there was a problem.

Instead of telling you how this woman responded to her boss’s criticism, let’s look at five different ways of thinking about and responding to this situation and an advantage and disadvantage for each type of response. As you read through each response think about when and where you might use each one.

  • 1. Quietly take it on the cuff: “I’m sorry. It was the best I could do in the moment.”
    Advantage: You are most likely able to avoid a big confrontation. For many people this feels like a safe answer.
    Disadvantage: You may feel put down and your boss may see you as a weak link.
  • 2. Express your resentment: “I didn’t have much of a choice. Your team made a mistake and I had to fix it fast.”
    Advantage: You were able to make your voice heard and point the conversation back to what caused you to need to take these steps.
    Disadvantage: You just started a fight with your boss that could undermine you later.
  • 3. Take control of the conversation; “This was not a normal situation. The problem had to be addressed quickly or we would have lost some major players. I stand by my actions.
    Advantage: This is an assertive stance that tough bosses often relate to easily.Disadvantage: If the boss’s criticism is coming out of fear of something like losing their job, it may leave them wondering if they can trust you to protect their back.
  • 4. Fix the boss’s immediate concern; “You seem concerned about how it was announced. I apologize if I unintentionally caused a problem. How can I help you to do damage control?”
    Advantage: Boss knows you got the underlying message and are concerned about making it right with your boss. This may release the boss’s tension.
    Disadvantage: You just put your boss’s monkey on your back and have become an easy target to blame when other things go wrong
  • 5. Focus on a solution; “What I think I hear you saying is, that there is a gap in our internal communications because we don’t have a way to alert people in a situation like this without broadcasting it to everyone. Is that correct? (If you get a positive response follow up with 2 questions) 1) What do you think we need to do immediately to do damage control and, 2) What if we put together a team to think through how we can respond in the future in a way that is both timely and directed only at the people who need to hear the message? Does that work for you?”
    Advantage: You put the elephant out on the table without blaming anyone and responded with a solution so that the boss does not have to be concerned going forward.
    Disadvantage: Sometimes people (bosses included) are so driven by fear that they cannot move quickly to a solution way of thinking and this can be frustrating for both people.
    What do you think of these responses? How would you answer the critical boss in this situation? Are there other situations where you might respond differently? Is there a different way that you have responded to unexpected criticism that has worked for you?

In this story we don’t know if the boss was embarrassed about everyone knowing that their department had made a big mistake, worried that some people might lose their jobs over this mistake or perhaps concerned that a client might hear about it. These are all understandable fears that may cause anyone to be critical and each situation needs to be responded to in a different way.

On the other hand, in a circumstance like this, it would be understandable for someone to react to the boss’s criticism in a way that wasn’t helpful. However, if we think through situations like this now, when we are calm, then perhaps when we run up against a critical boss we might be better prepared to respond in a way
that serves everyone the best.

If you have a snarly situation and are not sure how to handle it, contact me and let’s have a virtual cup of coffee and discuss your concern. It is always my pleasure to support you to

connect to your power,


Last modified: April 2, 2021

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