I recently received an email from a colleague that, among other things, suggested that I was "playing a shell game." I tend to pride myself on being transparent and honest, so it was a surprise to see, and it stung. The email explained, in direct language, that my colleague didn't trust my team, was highly frustrated, and had very low confidence in our work.
Receiving this kind of criticism is hard. My reaction was physical: a sinking feeling in my stomach, increased heart rate. And, of course, there were emotions: anger, disappointment, and insecurity. I could feel myself loading up my metaphorical guns to fire back, to point out how flawed my colleague's logic was and explain all the things his team was doing that contributed to the problem.
Open organization culture emphasizes the giving and receiving of direct feedback, often in public channels, and, frequently, in ways that feel less diplomatic than you might expect. I've coached a many new Red Hat associates through their initial experiences with this phenomenon, which can be uncomfortable. Normally, the harsh-sounding feedback is focused on the work at hand, the outcomes that work seeks to achieve, or the impact that a decision had on somebody.
One important skill for thriving in this culture is developing the security and confidence to trust that your colleagues are not questioning you or your abilities. Rather, they're explaining how your work is impacting them or resulting in consequences you hadn't anticipated. Feedback of this kind can lead to long, detailed exchanges that dissect and analyze arguments from many different angles. It's easier and faster if people don't share or respond to this kind of feedback, but these discussions usually create much better outcomes.
The email I received from my colleague was different, because it felt more like a personal attack, or a questioning of intentions and ability. When I looked at the email objectively, I realized that responding to each point was going to be futile. We weren't in a place of rationally discussing outcomes and decisions; we were in a place of emotional finger pointing. The best thing I could do in response, initially, was nothing. I needed to wait out my urge to "correct" my colleague's misunderstanding and misinterpretation of "the facts."
The core of my colleague's criticism was indeed true: There was a problem. The existence of the problem was not in question, and although we could debate the causes, doing so wouldn't be productive. The choice I had to make was between focusing on moving forward in a productive way to make things better or engaging in an argument over who did what when. Framed that way, the choice seems easier: I had to choose to take accountability, and hope (trust, really) that my colleague would choose to partner with me in making things better rather than just pointing out failures.
After thinking about it for a few days and overcoming my emotional reaction, I realized my colleague wasn't seeing the same things that I was seeing. So I needed to figure out a way to demonstrate for him what my team was doing and why my confidence in them and their work was well placed. That's something I can own. I can't control his attitude (which may be negative), or how he communicates (which may not be constructive), but I can take ownership of making sure the outcomes of my team's work are demonstrated and communicated.
Ultimately, how I respond to situations like this is a reflection of two of Red Hat's (and my) core values: accountability and commitment. I can't give up, or deflect, or defend, or retaliate. I need to figure out what I can do to make things better.
My reply, which came after 24 hours of writing and deleting email drafts, began, "Thank you for your directness… My goal is to partner with yourself and the other groups affected to create a more positive outcome for our customers..." I haven't yet received a response, but in the meantime I'm working my team to make progress on the problems at hand.