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?
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.