A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be interviewed for a national radio program. But amidst the Facebook "likes" from my friends and congratulatory emails, a message arrived in my inbox from a woman I had known casually in college. "Dorie, this was a huge fail," she began. She interpreted my commentary about search engine optimization techniques as aiding and abetting a politician she disagreed with, noting that I was "reprehensible" and adding for good measure, "Please take me off your lists. I'm not interested in receiving any communications about your company and I won't consider sending any clients in your direction." (Not that she had anyway.)
It happens to all of us: office rivals, "frenemies," or even colleagues trying to be helpful can sometimes offer harsh criticism. It's easy to get caught up in the moment — but instead, here are four strategies you can use when someone goes on the offensive.
Don't mouth off. It would have been easy for me to snap back at my old acquaintance; after all, I hadn't even seen her in nearly a decade, and here she was lecturing me. But instead, I waited to cool off and wrote her a cordial note back, saying I'd be glad to take her off any lists. In the Internet era, you don't want to leave an angry paper trail that others can post online — ever.
Determine if you're overreacting. A friend recently noticed a blog post online in which she felt a quote of hers was taken out of context. She was preparing a lengthy rebuttal, loaded with phrases like "your accusations," when I stopped her: was the post really that bad? She insisted the author was trying to make her look stupid, but agreed to tone down her comments. The upshot? Within a few hours, he had written back with a friendly and appreciative note; he hadn't been trying to insult her at all.
Remember: it's a sign of success. I won't go as far as the old bromide that "any press is good press," but it's true that people wouldn't be criticizing you if you weren't making an impact. Receiving harsh criticism can cause you to question yourself, but it's important to keep it in perspective: no one gets to the top without threatening or discomfiting at least a few people. Also — especially if the criticism is public — it can sometimes simply be an attempt for an upstart to make a name for themselves. I used to work in politics, and one of the established rules was to "attack upward," which is why candidates with low-name recognition are always challenging incumbents to debate (and the incumbents usually ignore them).
What goes around comes around. Zen masters and self-help gurus have long counseled that we should forgive those who have attacked us; holding a grudge only serves to tie us to that person and the negative memory they engender. I agree — up to a point. But one of the great pleasures in my business life has been the opportunity to demonstrate that people eventually get what they deserve. That doesn't mean seeking out vengeance, but it does mean that corporate circles are small and interconnected — and eventually, you may be called upon as a reference. Should he get that training position? Should she be hired for that nonprofit? Should we make him state director? And when asked by a trusted colleague, it's a pleasure to give a very frank answer.
How have you dealt with critics in your professional life? What strategies would you recommend for others?
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 1/24/2012.