Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

What to Do When You’ve Been Blindsided

Dear Crucial Skills,

A few months ago, while I was out of town, a colleague aired his grievances against me in a meeting with our new CEO. Two others joined in. This colleague previously reported to me, then was promoted to be my peer. He has been a contentious bully ever since, badmouthing me behind my back. When I returned from my trip, I was called into a meeting with the new CEO and the three who have issues with me. I was blindsided by their allegations. I pushed back very little but have since been stewing to the point of depression. Where should I go from here?


Dear Slammed,

I’m sorry for the painful experience you’re going through. I hope something I offer will be helpful to you.

You used a word in your note that brings me to a full stop: depression. If that word accurately describes your emotional state, I urge you to get help. Immediately. If you are depressed, you will be limited in your ability to benefit from any tactical advice I can offer. A trained therapist can give you the emotional support you need and recommend ways of maintaining your psychological safety and rebuilding your health.

If, however, you believe you have the emotional resources to try to solve the problem, I offer the following.

I’m limited in my ability to help because I cannot judge the merits of your colleague’s assertions. I don’t know, for example, whether their behavior represents any one of the following:

  • Complete fabrication: Were their allegations fabricated in a conspiracy to damage you?
  • Zero communication: Did any one of them make an attempt to share their concerns directly with you?
  • Some merit and some communication: Or, is there some truth to what they are alleging and they have made some attempt to communicate with you?

My experience in situations like this is that while the first and second scenarios sometimes happen, if we are humble and honest enough, we discover our situation is more like the third option. My first advice is to allow yourself to experience the hurt and shock you feel, and to take the time you need to absorb it. Then, when you are ready, do your best to examine the situation objectively—perhaps with the help of a trusted colleague with an independent viewpoint who will give you honest feedback.

Then, swallow hard and ask your CEO to reassemble the group. As difficult as it is for you, it’s important that the solution happen in the same setting where the problem occurred.

Begin the meeting as follows: “A few weeks ago you shared some feedback that surprised me. My hope today is to better understand your concerns. My goal is to work well with you, and from what you shared, it appears I’m failing. I may need some time to reflect on what you share today and decide on the best path forward, but I need to better understand what you are experiencing in order to figure that out.”

Come into the meeting like a faithful scientist with no axe to grind. You’re not there to defend yourself. You’re there to ask questions, gather evidence, and take notes. Do it dispassionately.

For example, if they previously asserted that you are incompetent at project management, begin the inquiry like this: “In our last meeting you stated that I am an incompetent project manager. Can you elaborate on that? What have I done or not done that appears incompetent to you?”

This approach is helpful both in dealing with complete fabrication and situations where there is some merit. If you do a good job staying in “scientist” mode, three things may happen:

  • You’ll come to see that there is some substance to their concerns.
  • If they are exaggerating their concerns, the contrast between their adjectives and real evidence will be apparent, influencing them to moderate their statements.
  • Any lack of concrete evidence will be more apparent to you and your boss, and any damage to your credibility will be improved.

Sincerity is the key to all of this. Do your best to come in humble and open, and let the facts speak for themselves. Once you have deeply understood their perspective and experience, decide whether you are in a good emotional place to “add your meaning to the pool” (as we say in Crucial Conversations), or whether you would benefit from time to recover and reflect before doing so.

I wish you all the best in getting to a healthier place.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

5 thoughts on “What to Do When You’ve Been Blindsided”

  1. Marie Altman

    Boy do I disagree. The advice to go back in and acquiesce to 4 people, as one alone, is poor and dangerous advice. It sounds as though the first meeting with the ceo and 3 others might have felt like an ambush; returning to the scene is not advisable. The fact that the complaining person still bad-mouths behind the questioner’s back, is important information, ignored by the advisor. The three scenarios given are too simplistic. Another might be, ‘there is some merit in the complainer’s dissatisfaction, but it was handled poorly and in such a way as to harm working together.’ Talking behind someone’s back to multiple people, before confronting, then after confronting, is an obstacle not to deny.

    1. CNM, 25 years USN (ret)

      I do agree with you. I would hope that the CEO would recognize or counsel them on this. I would hope that he/she would ask the right questions to them all. Have you spoken to your colleague about this? If they have not and they way they are going about now is not professional. This should raise concerns about their character.
      I can relate to the victim who was blindsided. My last 2 years out of 25 years in the military I was done the same way. Depression and PTSD working as a healthcare provider after being accused of incompetence was real. Still three years after retiring from the service I am fighting for my reputation and livelihood. I tried to have a meeting with the accusers and it was an ambush. Logically they were not interested in facts and that I had performed evidence based care and safe high quality care that was proven. They were set on destroying me and my ability to work as a certified nurse midwife after I retired. So it is best to not handle it that way. You perhaps need to get HR and the equal opportunity representative involved.

  2. Jennifer Evans

    Every situation has to be considered within its own context of course, and before I would go into a meeting as recommended, I would want to talk to the CEO and set some ground rules. (BTW the CEO did not show good judgement in in the first place.) As counter-intuitive as it may sound to sit down with the complainants, there may be some unexpected outcomes for you. I have been the victim/target of similar action, and when I could not confront the other party, it was emotionally devastating. However, when the same thing happened to me at another organization, and I was able to sit down and talk to the parties involved, the outcome was very different. I understood how I could be a more effective leader, it become apparent to everyone that the complaints were actually quite petty if not fabricated (three people were bullied into complaining about me by a person making a power play), and I developed a relationship of mutual respect and regard with staff. I can’t promise this outcome for other situations — but the greatest benefit for me was having a chance to act in keeping with my values of integrity and courage. As I often told my children when they were growing up — do the right thing, not because it will change others (it may), but so that you can respect yourself.

    1. CNM, 25 years USN (ret)

      Thank you for sharing. It truly takes courage. I appreciate your transparency and example.

  3. John J. Chico

    I believe a “confrontation” needs to take place -either individually or in a group. The group setting described certainly sounds more dangerous. However, it might have been necessasry. I am a staff member in an organization where three managers routinely discuss negative comments about staff members (which staff members may not be aware of) with the department head. When I heard that this was a routine occurrence I was shocked at the unprofessionalism. Unfortunately, I did nothing. I regret doing nothing because it seemed to signal an acceptance of their negative comments without any concern or attempted remediation. In retrospect, I should have asked to meet with the management team and expressed my concern in “scientist” mode.

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