‘She’s way out of her league’ is how Barry Zekelman of the Steel Industry described Chrystia Freeland’s handling of the NAFTA negotiations and the continuation of tariffs. I don’t have superior knowledge of the complex issues of international trade negotiations, and so cannot comment on the outcome of the agreement. However, I do know the sound of a statement that is meant to discredit someone.

In the workplace it is important to know how to differentiate constructive criticism from an attempt to merely discredit or dismiss one’s efforts. For example, a statement such as ‘she’s way out of her league’, may be someone’s insensitive way to provide valid feedback that your competency is below that which is required.  Whether used as a bully tactic, or ignorantly insensitive, don’t let the statement stand on its own.

Here are some suggestions on how to manage the aftermath:

Stay Calm

Defensively replying, ‘no, I am not out of my league’ lets the other person set the agenda. Prepare to respond on your own terms, not theirs.

Clarify the facts

Are there any other details available to specify exactly what the person said could have been better? For example, consider a situation where you facilitated a meeting around a contentious issue and are being criticized that both parties walked out angrily.  Is the person criticizing you about the type of approach you used, its timing, or your skills in mediation? In fact, did both parties walk out angrily, or is this the impression someone wants to create? Ask from where the person is getting his information about the meeting or the outcome; is it from one or both meeting participants, or someone who has a separate interest in the outcome? Finding out the facts will give you a clearer picture about the person doing the criticizing and their motive.

Do a rigorous self-evaluation

Assess the outcome of the event being criticized against what you had intended, or available objective criteria. Did you achieve what you set out to achieve? If not, what skills and strategies do you feel you could develop further? Consider specific criticism and suggestions made by others. Seek additional feedback and support from a colleague you trust.

Consider how the message was delivered to you

Did the feedback come to you from the person one-on-one? Was it said on a group? Or, did someone tell you it was said to them or someone else? If you did not hear it directly, you’ll need to verify what was said, by whom.

The first thing I did after I saw the headline about Chrystia Freeland was to read the whole story. I wanted to assess if this was the media’s interpretation, or were these the words actually said. The statement was, in fact, attributed to the speaker, but it was not all he said.  Including the dismissive criticism in the headline no doubt attracts more readers, but leaves me somewhat disheartened. These words are also appearing in the headline in this blog post, but only with the follow up, ‘managing dismissive criticism in the workplace’.

If a colleague is telling you what was said second hand, and uses language of their own that inflates the criticism, make sure you still follow the suggestions to stay calm, clarify the facts, and do your self-evaluation. If you and this colleague have had a good relationship up to this point you may wish to have a follow-up conversation with them to re-establish trust. Alternatively, you may wish to keep them at arm’s length if you feel they may have an ulterior motive, or just wanted to upset you.

Meet with the person you report to

Schedule a meeting with your boss to follow-up. They likely have also heard this criticism, and may or may not agree with it. It will help to share the outcome of clarifying the facts and your self-evaluation. Seek your boss’s feedback and advice. Walk out of your meeting with the boss with a shared strategy on how to deal with the issue and the criticism.

Determine a follow-up communication strategy

With your boss’s firm support you may decide to ignore the critical comments, and treat it as an isolated and contained opinion. If it is repeated, however, you will need to be prepared to address it.

Make sure the others involved in the issue around which the criticism focused are brought up to date and are part of the plan moving forward. In meetings or conversations where the topic comes up reiterate your strategy and principles by which you intend to achieve the best outcome.

One additional tip

Even where we realize criticism is valid, we can feel hurt by the way it was delivered. Stay open to valid criticism whether it is gentle or harsh. Toughen your skin just enough to deflect negativity, but remain open to listening to what can be invaluable feedback. Criticism that is dismissive serves someone else’s agenda. Reassert your credibility by clarifying the facts, doing a self-assessment and getting your boss’ support. Doing so will help you to continue developing as an effective manager and leader.

Do you believe it is ever justified to tell someone that ‘they are way out of their league’? Under what circumstances might this be helpful? Please comment to share your ideas with others.