• Publications

What to do after a sh##ty meeting with your Boss: Surviving Corporate Disgrace

By Katherine Craig

Ottawa Human Resource Professionals Association, Up-Date Magazine, January 2013


Scenario:

A door slams hard in the corridor and your phone rings. You cringe. The boss's administrative assistant says the boss wants to see you immediately.

Boss: I just had a very illuminating phone call about how you handled the meeting yesterday afternoon. I can't believe you said what you did and acted that way! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?? (The boss continues a shouting rant for what feels like hours.)

You: (Grappling for control as nausea and anger take turns) Um, clearly I didnít think it through and it wasn't my best moment. Um...sorry.

Boss: (Looks at you like something to be scraped off a shoe, stands up and leans over the desk to look you hard in the eyes.) THIS IS A MESS AND IT'S DIRECTLY A RESULT OF YOU! Please leave my office now. We'll continue this discussion later.

You walk out of the office angrier than you've been in a long time. The murder plot in that ridiculous movie, "Horrible Bosses", suddenly has merit.

You rage. You fume. You decide to take the rest of the day off and angrily clear your desk. As you bristle towards the door you suddenly realize everyone has stopped talking and is covertly watching you. Nausea sets back in as you realize that everyone heard every word shouted by your boss. No one makes eye contact as you head for the elevator.

At home you pace the length of your living room - your anger is freshly buffed by recounting the meeting and every injustice of the past. How could he speak to you that way after all you've done for the company? You think maybe you should quit. That would show them how valuable you are! All the projects would come to a grinding halt then they would be sorry! Or you think maybe it would be a good time to really lay it out there with a well-worded email. Yeah. Even better, maybe you should phone or email the boss's boss and then let the feathers fly! Yeah. Over the next few hours you continue to toy with plans of revenge and payback...

You have been hijacked
The amygdala is an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain's medial temporal lobe. This subcortical brain structure is linked to both fear and pleasure. This is the oldest part of our brain and something that we share with many life forms. It is responsible for acting immediately when we perceive a threat. Daniel Goleman coined the phrase "Amygdala hijack" in his 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ to describe this involuntary response. When this part of the brain is in control, rational thinking has been minimized. Frequently the response can be out of proportion to the incident.

When people say, "I don't know what came over me, I just went nuts on the guy who was breaking into my apartment!" they have been hijacked by their amygdala. If one really thought rationally about taking on a stranger in the dark of night they might phone police or escape out a window.

Talk yourself down or go to someone for help
For those of us who have watched the movie The Colour of Money we all knew with a groan that sending a memo detailing an injustice to the entire company was the wrong thing to do, and the main character was about to lose his job. We know this consequence without having someone have to explain it to us. But how do we shut the crazy amygdala off and get from rage to rational (non-destructive) thought?

There are two main strategies that help us move to useful thinking. The first is to speak with someone who is good at listening and even better at helping you come up with positive ideas. This is not the time to go visit your friend who will side with you no matter what you say. Unconditional love is fine, unconditional thinking is not helpful. If you donít have a friend who can fill this role then business coaches or therapists can be very handy as they deal successfully with helping people through these situations all the time.

Perhaps though, you've done a lot of reading and self-help studying on your own. Go back to that material and look for ideas that will guide you back into thinking mode. Talk yourself through the situation and really analyse what went on and explore your options.

Beware of soothing yourself by falling into overuse of habits such as television watching, eating, drinking, sleeping, etc. Done in balance these coping strategies are okay, but when we are stressed we can overuse these and they prevent us from moving forward.

Rubber to the Road
Much as you would like nothing better than to hide at home indefinitely, you know you can't. Here are some tips to think about before you go back to face the music.

Preparation:

  • Analyse the entire situation that caused the unfortunate meeting with your boss - what part did you play? Could you have done better? What facts did you use to guide your actions? Is there blame that you should shoulder? We are inclined to be a little soft on ourselves and make excuses. Don' do that, be a bit tough on yourself and call it like it is.
  • Plan what you want and need to say before you get in front of your boss or you risk getting hijacked all over again. Do you need to apologize? Do you need to provide more facts? Do you need to hear more facts? Remember to focus on the issue, not the person.
  • Don't put off the meeting with your boss or wait to be called, ask politely if you could have a follow-up meeting.
  • Remember that in the grand scheme of things this is a relatively minor event, so don't catastrophize.

In the meeting:

  • When you arrive ensure that you sit, don't stand. This meeting is not meant to be a "stand-off." If possible, don't meet in the office where there will be distractions. Find a quiet meeting room.
  • Remember your game plan and be clear about your intentions, focussing on one issue at a time. It's easy when emotions have been running high to get sucked back into a negative blame game. There are no winners in that game.
  • Keep your voice at a moderate tone. When your anxiety and stress rise so does your voice pitch and volume. If your boss raises his or her voice be especially sure to control yours.
  • Listen to understand. What facts did your boss use to guide his/her thinking? This is tricky because a big part of you just wants your boss to say they were wrong and you were right. Listen to what s/he has to say and look for opportunities to collaborate on the solution. If your boss says, "I've fixed everything" then be prepared to suggest a few extra things you could do that would also contribute to the solution. Try to understand the situation from both points of view and ensure you ask questions to clarify your understanding.
  • Finally, document the conversation and next steps and share it with your boss. This lets you and the boss know you are on the same page and how you will move forward together.

Not a Single Event but an Ongoing Conflict - Senge offers answers
At some point(s) we all get caught in a situation where we just don't get along with a boss or co-worker and it is apparent to all those around you. You feel like no matter what you do or say, it's always the wrong thing. You frequently think of your relationship with this person as "oil and water" - things that just don't mix. These sorts of situations can overshadow all the good work you do. Like the single blow-out it creates high drama in the office. This is just death by a thousand cuts.

Peter Senge proposed a perspective that sheds a great light of understanding on oil/water communication. He took us back to the root of our beliefs, which guide our actions. He actually broke down how we get to our beliefs and outlined them in the "Ladder of Inference", below.

The process starts at the bottom of the ladder. First we observe all the data from the world around us. But the brain can only take in so much at a time so it starts to sort according to what we think is useful and necessary. The brain also likes patterns - loves patterns! The patterns are hinged to our survival mechanism, for example, if you see a lion skulking behind you it could be preparing for attack, or when the weather gets cold we know food sources will change. This is all hardwired deep inside of us and is quite useful. So, on rung two of the ladder the data gets selected. Following that we add cultural and personal meanings to that data so it continues to fall into a pattern and make sense. This allows us to make assumptions then jump to - er, I mean draw conclusions. Still seeking patterns we generalize these conclusions to beliefs about our world. Do you remember the backlash on the Muslim community after 9/11? We know whatever is going on in our head will come out in our actions, and as surely as night follows day we tuck our beliefs tightly under our arm and march into the world to take action.

We scamper up and down this ladder so often in a day it's no wonder we are exhausted at the end! I can still hear some of you thinking, "That's not me". Okay, try this one on for size - you look into your email inbox and see the name of a person that always seems to give you grief. What do you immediately think?

"Oh no, a message from (or about) XXX. This can't be good, it's never good. I bet they are either writing to complain or to get me to do something (I don't want to do). How can they do this to me? Don't they know I'm busy? I don't want to open this now as it will only make my day worse. I'm going to pretend I didn't see it."

I think I would be safe in betting we've all done this! And we've thought all this before opening the email. Previous communication has made us believe that all future communication will be the same.

Now you say to me, "Katherine, I have every reason to believe I should avoid that email. This person is always a problem and I have proof!" You would be right. Senge pointed out that we are anchored by four fundamental feelings:

  • Our beliefs are the truth.
  • The truth is obvious.
  • Our beliefs are based on real data.
  • The data we select are the real data.*

Do you see how the "oil/water" dilemma occurs? You have picked data to make judgements on a situation. So has the other person. Both of you have real data and when you say that your data is correct it is...according to your selection. This is how people get stuck in corners and all communication seems to be compromised. Each is sure they are in the right. Each is sure that the situation should be clear and obvious to all.

So think about your ongoing clash and ask yourself these questions:

  • What is the data that I'm using?
  • Is there other data or facts available that I might not be using?
  • Where might I find that data I'm missing or have overlooked?
  • How do I approach the other person knowing that s/he also has real data or facts?
  • What assumptions or conclusions did I extrapolate from my limited data?
  • How do my beliefs and possible unwillingness to look at extra data serve me?

Last thoughts
Your colleagues will be looking for more negative behaviour and juicy details about your conflict. Do not give in to the dark side! Be discrete. This is no one's business and you don't want to feed the fire. Before long everyone will find something - or someone - else to talk about. The only person who can keep the scandal alive, or squish it, is you.

Think about Senge's Ladder of Inference, especially in the Preparation and Meeting steps mentioned above. It's a slippery slope downwards following data selection. Use your understanding of the ladder to become more aware of your reasoning and how others function. Ask the other person about what data s/he is using; this frequently nips dissention and conflict in the bud. You may not agree, but at least you are on the same page, which often stems the tide of frustration from not being heard.

So take heart, having a terrible meeting with your boss and oil/water relationships happen to all people in business, no matter what your title. There are great tools to deal with these situations, and you get the opportunity to actually gain more respect from your boss and peers if you handle the conflict like a pro.

*Excerpt from The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook. Copyright 1994 by Peter M. Senge, Art Kleiner, Charlotte Roberts, Richard B. Ross, and Bryan J. Smith



Katherine Craig is the founder & CEO of Spearhead Executive Coaching, a dynamic organization dedicated to helping individuals and companies achieve greater success through the delivery of high-performance coaching programs. To comment on her story, send a message to Katherine@spearheadexecutivecoaching.com.