7 Tricky Work Situations, and How to Respond to Them

7 Tricky Work Situations, and How to Respond to Them
oct17-11-hbr-jennifer-maravillas-presentation
Jennifer Maravillas for HBR

You know the moment: a mood-veering, thought-steering, pressure-packed interaction with a colleague, boss, or client where the right thing to say is stuck in a verbal traffic jam between your brain and your mouth.

Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and author of Choke, found that this analysis paralysis occurs when your brain suddenly becomes overtaxed by worry or pressure. Consequently, you find yourself unable to respond to a mental, psychological, or emotional challenge, and you fail to execute in the critical moment.

Many people experience this at work. But there are certain phrases you can keep in your back pocket when these moments come. Route your response with them, and redirect the situation to regain control.

Situation #1: Someone takes credit for your idea.

Katie is the COO of a hospitality company. She has a keen strategic mind. In a contentious moment, she recommends that the C-suite move toward a new talent strategy. The idea is met with resistance. Then Dave, the head of IT, restates her idea in his own words. The rest of the C-suite supports him in “his” idea.

It’s not a matter of if this situation happens, but when: You competently make a point. It goes unacknowledged or is tersely rejected. Minutes or days later, a colleague or manager misrepresents your point as their own, restates it identically, and is praised and credited for making it.

What you should say: “Thanks for spotlighting my point.”

Why it works: Spoken with composure, it:

  • prevents you from being trivialized by serving notice about the misappropriation of your contribution
  • allows you to reclaim your idea without aspersion
  • gives you the upper hand when addressing the matter with a manager
  • provides an opportunity for greater ownership, if delivered in front of others, by offering detail or clarification for impact

Katie didn’t skip a beat. “Thanks for spotlighting my point, Dave. There are a couple other topics worth considering in tandem with this. I’ll review those quickly and we can delve into more detail in the next meeting.” The group refocused their attention on Katie, and moved along to viewing her as the point person for the conversation.

Situation #2: You’re asked to stay late when you’re about to leave the office for a personal obligation.

Heather is a physician at a large urban hospital. Wednesdays at 4 p.m. she attends the one-hour weekly clinic administration meeting. If Heather leaves by 5 p.m., she arrives home in time to allow the nanny to get to her own children’s after-school program on time. At 5 p.m., Heather stands up to leave. One of the clinic administrators asks if she can stay a few more minutes until they are done. She dreads saying that she has to leave to relieve the nanny because she knows that her colleagues may judge her as having a poor work ethic.

What you should say: “Excuse me, I have another commitment.”

Picking up your child from daycare, moving a parent into a care facility, or attending a surgery consultation with a dear friend are time sensitive, must-do things — especially when someone you love is depending on you. No matter how family-friendly a workplace claims to be, explaining family matters to colleagues can cause resentment.

Why it works: This sentence will minimize your risk of backlash because it:

  1. Serves as an implicit, respectable request for confidentiality.
  2. Establishes an information boundary, that puts anyone who crosses it at risk for appearing inappropriately intrusive.
  3. Eliminates oversharing about the reason for your departure.

Gathering her laptop and bag, Heather says, “Excuse me, I have another commitment.” Another physician asks, “Where are you off to? Anything fun?” Walking towards the conference room door, Heather grabs her water bottle with the parting phrase, “It’s just something I committed to long before this meeting was scheduled. I’ll swing by tomorrow to get caught up.”

Situation #3: In a pivotal situation, a trusted colleague snaps at you.

Manuel and Alvin run their website out of their home. Manuel writes content. Alvin designs and formats. Manuel realizes Alvin’s work often requires longer hours to tend to. In appreciation, he frequently buys Alvin sandwiches for lunch, occasionally gifts him chiropractic treatments for chronic back problems, and sometimes surprises him with an addition to his wardrobe. One day, Alvin approaches Manuel and tells him he wants to make a major career shift. Manuel says nothing. Feeling ignored, Alvin repeats his intention and asks “You have nothing to say about this?” Dismissively, Manuel responds, “About what?” Alvin feels disrespected by Manuel’s lack of concern or consideration. Despite Manuel’s many acts of appreciation, Alvin feels regularly shortchanged by comparison of the level of focus, regard, and responsiveness Manuel reserves for paying customers. When Alvin addresses it, Manuel snaps back, “Look at how much I do for you!”

What you should say: “This isn’t about what you do for me. It is about what you did to me.”

You know when someone, who most always does right by you, sideswipes you and crashes into your good rapport? Frustration follows when your attempt to address it is met with a retort and a guilt trip. Though their concerns may be may be valid, it doesn’t mean they should be rude.

Why it works: When stated without emotional inflammation, this sentence can quickly reduce frustrations by:

  1. Limiting the scope of the exchange to the isolated misstep, and not being derailed by a comparative exchange about a history of mutual consideration.
  2. Quickly dealing with the fact-based, cause-effect dynamics of the exchange.
  3. Allowing for an opportunity establish mutually affirming conduct, going forward.

Alvin takes a deep breath. “This isn’t about what you do for me. It is about what you did to me.” He goes on to acknowledge Manuel’s appreciation for his work, before addressing his unresponsiveness. Manuel apologizes, realizing he has hurt Alvin by not being more mindful and considerate when Alvin came to speak to him.

Situation #4: Saying “no.”

Sam sends Julia a text at 9 p.m. Saturday night, with an idea that could give the company an edge in customer service call hold times. Julia has been asked to try to work more collaboratively with Sam, but she has been avoiding it because Sam is unreliable.

What you should say: “This is a good launching point.”

Saying “no” is tough to do, especially when trying to demonstrate you are hardworking and a team player. It often seems easier to say yes to appease others, flash the right optics, or get the task out of the way.

Why it works: Spoken with a tone of enthusiasm and flexibility, this positive statement allows you to bow out of the initial request, while protecting your reputation by:

  1. Reframing their idea as a starting point.
  2. Allowing you to entertain the request without committing to it.
  3. Creating the option to shape the request.
  4. Doling out diplomacy not rejection.

Julia texts Sam “This is a good launching point! I’ll get my team together to prepare the data, and reach out to you with ideas of how we can approach the call hold times.”

Situation #5: Giving negative or awkward feedback to someone you’re close with.

Tony is a purchaser at a chocolate factory. For two years, Jay has been both his manager and his friend. Lately, many other employees have asked Jay to tell Tony that he has halitosis. The situation has become intolerable for many, even off-putting to vendors.

What you should say: “I’m here to be for you what someone once was for me.”

When you are giving sensitive feedback, no matter how much you try to position yourself as an advocate, people tend to become defensive. It makes you question if giving the feedback is even worth it.

Why it works: Delivered in a calm and candid tone, this sentence can save a career or life-altering moment from becoming a decimating event with an alienating outcome by:

  1. Giving the other person a moment to brace themselves.
  2. Leading by sharing a personal account of a tough feedback situation you experienced, which endorses the value of receiving and listening to exacting criticism.
  3. Instantly unifying you with the other person through your shared vulnerability.
  4. Shifting them from hearing the message as disparagement; to hearing it as encouragement or concern.

Jay approaches Tony at his desk, and lets him know he has some quick feedback. “Tony, I’m here to be for you what someone once was for me. You may have noticed that I take a step back, when we talk. Myself and others have experienced, on several occasions, that your breath isn’t always the best. It could just be dehydration, but I’m concerned it could indicate something you might want to discuss with your dentist or internist.” He hands Tony a pack of strong breath mints. Tony, though a bit embarrassed, smiles and thanks him. Jay shakes his hand and heads back to his desk.

Situation #6: Pushing back on a decision you believe is wrong.

Mae-Li is a partner and head of the most important research team at a pharmaceutical company. Her team is the only group in the company that is almost entirely Chinese and majority female. When the office is undergoing a redesign, a few top managers are tapped to decide which groups will be moved to the less desirable basement level. Without asking for her input, Mae-Li’s group is selected to move to the basement. She feels slighted.

What you should say: “This is my preference.”

Sometimes, when something bothers you, addressing it can leave you feeling apprehensive and conflicted. You can spend time analyzing and detailing a defense for your perspective, but it may just overcomplicate matters.

Why it works: It will allow you to direct the conversation towards a desired change, while still conveying openness for other approaches by:

  1. Clearly communicating your concern and what you want.
  2. Reasoning rather than offering a defiant dictate.
  3. Demonstrating you are willing to get involved with a potentially sensitive topic.
  4. Giving others the heads up that the outcome matters to you enough that you will be tracking it as it develops.

Mae-Li pops her head into her manager’s office. She explains that since she wasn’t consulted by the moving committee before being directed to move, she would like to share her perspective; in the hope that he may share it with the committee. “I realize that some of the teams are going to have to move, but it’s unclear why mine was selected for the basement. I want my team to stay on this floor. This is my preference.” Her manager takes notes, confirms her perspective and lets her know that he will advocate for her team.

Situation #7: Escalating a serious issue.

Eva is an engineer in Silicon Valley. While away at an industry event in NYC, she returns to her hotel to find her manager in the hotel lobby. He tells her that he flew there to spend time with her because he has strong feelings for her. When Eva reports this to Abe from the HR department, she is told that her manager is one of the top performers at the company, that he has been there for many years without incident, and that she probably misinterpreted what he said.

What you should say: “Your response gives me cause to take this further.”

When it comes serious issues like sexual harassment, there is still inconsistency with how managers and HR departments handle complaints. This can leave you worried and troubled about being mistreated again, about losing opportunities for promotion, and even about losing your job.

Why it works: This serious statement, delivered in a calm and matter-of-fact tone, informs the offender and managers that you will not be complicit and compliant with misconduct, and that you will figure out a way to take further action by:

  1. Establishing that the issue isn’t going away. They can elect to handle the situation themselves, or later answer to someone else about it.
  2. Being transparent about your plan to escalate.
  3. Demonstrating you expect that the offender will pay the price for committing the poor conduct, and that you will not be paying the price for reporting it.
  4. Empowering you in the moment, rather than demoralizing you in the aftermath.

Eva is not deterred by Abe’s cavalier response. She writes his response verbatim in her notebook. She tells him: “I shared the facts with you. Your response gives me cause to take this further.” Abe raises his eyebrows and asks, “Are you sure this is a battle worth fighting with your manager?” Eva again writes Abe’s words verbatim in her notebook. She responds “Yes, I’m sure.” She repeats: “Your response gives me cause to take this further.” She thanks Abe, and leaves the office to email another executive at the company, with the serious intent to pursue redress.

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