Dear Office-Politics,

We just finished a large and difficult project. The final pieces weren’t perfect, but I feel that they were impactful, and served their purpose. As in any project, there is room for improvement, which I’m sure we as a team will address. A coworker, who wasn’t even part of the project is suddenly picking it apart—pointing out little flaws that everyone on the team is already aware of. Even if his feedback was accurate, it seems out-of-place, but in this case, he’s exaggerating the issues—in one case he out and out lied. My first thought is that he’s trying make me or someone on my team look bad, or to make himself look better.

I’ve been trying to be as diplomatic as I can be, trying to acknowledge anything that he says that may have some truth in it, but I really feel like he has some sort of agenda, and I’m not sure what to do.

Do I:

  1. Continue to minimize what he’s doing (i.e. acknowledging his feedback and not telling the rest of the team that I think he’s up to something.)?
  2. Tell the rest of the team all or part of what I think is going on?
  3. Confront him directly and honestly the next time he brings it up?
  4. Do something else?

Thank you,

Strategizing my Moves


Dear Strategizing my Moves,

First congratulations on finishing the project, and—from what it sounds like—finishing it reasonably well.

What I’m going to advise may sound counter-intuitive, but bear with me: I think your best next step is to 100% listen to him.

Skillful Listening is the Secret Superman
Before you roll your eyes, let me make a plug for listening: I think of skillful listening as the secret Superman of human interaction. It seems like Clark Kent: dorky and mild-mannered, kind of ineffectual. But actually, it can move faster than a speeding assumption and leap tall conflicts in a single bound!

Now, you may think you have been listening to him—but I suspect you’ve been saying things like, “Yeah, yeah, we knew that didn’t work perfectly,” or
“Well, what you’re saying might be have some truth in it.” Trust me, that doesn’t feel like listening to him: it feels like a dismissal.

Listen with a Curious Mind
Here’s what I suggest. Tell him you’d really like to fully understand his point of view, and invite him to meet with you, just the two of you, without any other distractions. Before the meeting, find that place inside yourself where you really do want to fully understand his point of view.

You can do that by investigating and shifting your self-talk. Right now, you’re saying things to yourself like…
“Where does he get off?” and
“He must have some political agenda,”
or “He must be trying to make us look bad.”

Instead, see if you can get curious. See if you can say to yourself, “What does he see? How does this look from his perspective?”

What does he see that you don’t see?
Then, when you’re meeting with him, make your only goal to understand his point of view. Insofar as possible, put aside defending your team’s actions, or helping him understand how hard you worked, or the extenuating circumstances. And put aside your own emotional resistance to having him put in his 2¢ (or 200¢). Ask him the kind of curiosity-based questions you would ask someone whose intentions and perspective you really wanted to hear.

For instance: “So, what do you think we could have done differently?” “How might that have helped the outcome?” “Are there other things you observed that didn’t seem effective?” “How would you have done that differently?” Your job isn’t to disagree or agree, prove him right or wrong—you’re just trying to understand.

And, when you think you’ve understood his main points, summarize: “OK, let me make sure I’ve understood you here: you think we should have done A, B and C, and that if we’d done that, the outcome of the project would have been improved in ways D and E.” (For more insight into how to listen really deeply, you might want to read the first Chapter in my book Growing Great Employees; it’s all about listening.)

Once he’s acknowledged that you’ve correctly understood his point of view, thank him for sharing it with you. THEN STOP TALKING. You’ve done what you set out to do, and at this point you could negate the entire positive effect by sliding into defending, disagreeing, taking exception.

The Beauty of True Listening
Now, the beauty of true listening is that there are no downsides. First, although it might be a mighty struggle for you to just listen, it won’t actually damage you in any way, and you may find out important information. You may discover that he’s seen something you need to see. And even if you end by thinking he’s completely wrong, it might give you useful insight into how other people are viewing you, your team, or the project.

Second, it’s extremely unlikely that listening to him will have a negative impact on him. If he does have a political agenda, listening to him probably won’t help—but it won’t hurt, and it might very well give you additional insight into his motivation, which would help you understand better how to protect yourself or your team. If he doesn’t have a political agenda, and is either simply the kind of person who wants everybody to know his opinion, or is honestly convinced he has something useful to share with you, then listening to him will probably make him feel really respected and build a lot of good will with him. And it’s very likely to end his kibitzing: feeling fully heard is an extremely satisfying experience.

Try it, and see what happens. Thank you for writing to Office-Politics.

Keep us posted…


Erika Andersen, Author