How to respond to direct, harsh criticism at work

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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.

Picture of Sam in his home office smiling at the camera. Sam is a white man. He has long curly brown hair and is wearing a dark green zip up fleece hoody.
I lead a team in Red Hat focused on providing context, knowledge, connection and alignment to our Product and Technologies employees, as well as working to ensure they have an inclusive, equitable, and safe environment to work and grow in. I am a late-diagnosed autistic person and I co-chair Red Hat's neurodiversity employee resource group.

12 Comments

Great open and honest experience you are sharing Sam, thanks for that.

Great counsel. Time heals all wounds but the restraint of tongue and pen is the best short term answer.

Sam,

I have been in your shoes before on that. It isn't what you want to hear or get. While I too get emotional during those times, I agree that taking time to respond was/is the best choice. Sometimes being quick to respond makes the situation worse and could be a vital failure due to basic human nature. Taking the time to "peer through their eyes" is sometimes what I have to do.
Bravo for being open and honest on a subject that we all do not like to deal with.

Good advice, Sam. I've been in that situation once or twice in the past, and in one case the criticism a colleague leveled at me or my team was more the product of general frustration than anything I or my team did/didn't do. It's definitely a good idea to step back, let the emotions settle, and extend your hand. No use getting into a small war when you don't need to.

I like your approach very much. It is open, not aggressive but friendly, and emphasizes on cooperation and the common goals - which is why you've come together in the first place. That's very good.

What I find missing in your article, since it presents itself as a possible solution for many people, is that it comes across as a universal response, which it should not be. Meaning, there is a good chance that some people will now use it word by word and for all kinds of criticism. This is probably not what you want.

You should point out in your article that your response is not so much about the words, but about taking criticism seriously and positively, to reflect upon oneself, to improve and to cooperate. But also to respond thoughtfully and not emotionally.

That said, the criticism you've been given seems rather personal and I would consider such a personal attack and to be careful with those. The risk here is that once one opens the door for personal attacks abuse can follow. Thus my response would probably have been a bit more firm and I would have point out the personal nature of the criticism as well as the use of an email instead of a personal talk, and that such is not appreciated.

If I may give you my advise on the future, should the criticism continue then take it straight to your supervisor and tell him/her that you don't want to deal with it, but that you've got work to do. Don't try to solve it in a one-on-one conversation, but get a third person into it.

Last but not least, to those who feel they want to give criticism, remind yourself to put it into a question and to hold back on accusations. Instead of accusing somebody of playing a shell game, ask them why they are playing a shell game. Be curious about it, but don't be hurt and don't judge. There will be a reason for it.

Thank you, Sven, for your thoughtful comments. I agree that each situation is unique, and there is no universal response you can follow across the board. For me, it's important to think about your principles (who do you want to be?) and your goals (what do you want to accomplish in your response?). Taking time to reflect on those before responding can help anchor you.

In reply to by Sven (not verified)

Great post! It is very encouraging to see such an open and honest account and your approach shows great wisdom. If more of us could follow your example, imagine how much better things could be!

Good response to a difficult scenario by opening up the conversation to a collaborative strategy for improvement. Hopefully your colleague is also searching for a way to move forward for better deliverables for the end customer, too.

Having been in similar work environments where the passion runs deep and public, It can be hard to take that time to step back from the emotions and craft and carry through a response that builds up vs breaks down the work environment.

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