“We’re shocked, shocked you even get it, pal” smirks the woman into the conference phone thinking that her boss on the other end of the line cannot hear her. Her colleagues seated around the table chuckle knowingly. But when a young staffer pokes his head into the conference room to say the mute button on the phone is not working, the lighthearted mood evaporates. “Bye, bye bonus!” mutters a colleague.
While this scene is part of a Xerox commercial, the context is real. Many of us would like to tell off our bosses.
But take a step back for a moment. What if you are the person being insulted, held up for ridicule in front of your team? What should you do? Well, there are two things you don’t do.
First, you do not over-react, insulting those who have insulted you. That merely puts you on the same level as your direct reports. Second, you do not ignore the situation. Reflect on the situation and consider your next steps. Thinking and planning are critical.
Specifically, do three things:
Examine the context. Consider what is going on in the workplace. Is work going well, or are people feeling overwhelmed? Venting at the boss is a typical reaction to stress that may result from over work or a feeling of helplessness. Perhaps the business is doing poorly and people are feeling nervous and tense about their situation. The boss becomes an easy target.
Consider the source. Not all employees are worth their weight in gold. The person who insulted you may be a malcontent or wiseacre. Or it may be the best performing employee you have. Consider what they say and why. You’re entitled to have a conversation with the individual to find out why they feel the way they do. If their grievance is legitimate, you must talk it out and find some common ground.
Address your team. As painful as this situation is, it need not be the end of your management career, even with the people you are managing. You can turn the moment of criticism into a learning opportunity. Think about what you need to do to win back their confidence. Be open and honest about your failings. Ask for input from them to make things better.
Most importantly, share ownership of the issue. Once you bare your soul and own up to the problem, it’s time for your team to demonstrate accountability. It’s easy to throw stones, but it is harder to do when you are the one who must fix the broken windows. You’re still the boss so you are right to demand responsibility from your team. Be specific about what you expect from them and make it clear that you will be holding them accountable for results. Those who don’t pull their weight may need to find work elsewhere.
None of us is above making mistakes. How we deal with mistakes, even those that may threaten our credibility, is the measure of our leadership. Ignoring the situation is tantamount to giving permission to your team to do whatever they want to do. Taking joint ownership of the situation is what leaders do.
First posted on HBR.org 9/15/2008