It happens to everyone. You’ll be in a meeting or working on a project, and someone will say something that, to you, sounds like a criticism of your work, or of you specifically. Perhaps it happens in a meeting with a group, looking at a challenge or crisis on the project. Despite your project management work to date, someone says, “we really need to start managing this project.” You think, “wait. What the heck do you think I’ve BEEN doing?”
The feeling can be very distracting. You find after a few minutes that you haven’t been paying attention. You feel a bit flushed, a cross between angry and embarrassed. The conversation has moved on, but you have not – that sentence and those feelings linger beyond the meeting and the day.
Sometimes, this can lead to or feed into Imposter Syndrome. Most professionals experience this at one time or another, sometimes often: the feeling that, despite all evidence to the contrary – like your career progress, position, recognition, and other success – you really don’t know what you’re doing and it’s just a matter of time till everyone else recognizes it.
This feeling is quite common – I’ve heard from friends and colleagues in all fields and at all levels that, every now and then, they fully expect to be found out and asked to leave. Like being unmasked a party they haven’t been invited to. There is plenty of online guidance about getting past that feeling, but not so much about dealing with a pointed comment.
It’s easy to say, “let it go”, but getting past a back-handed criticism can be difficult, especially if it is out of the blue and, in your own estimation, uncalled for. Here’s a few tips on getting past the feeling, getting to the root of the comment, and getting back to your productive self.
Consider the speaker’s perspective. It’s entirely possible that they were having a bad day, and you just happened to walk into the line of fire. That doesn’t make the comments and impact okay, but it does make it understandable. Who hasn’t had a bad day, or been in a difficult spot, and said something that afterwards they might want to take back. I know I have. When I recognize it, I always try to follow-up and apologize; even if it’s months later, and the other person says they don’t remember it, I do and I feel better for having taken it back.
It’s also possible the person DOESN’T know what you’ve been doing. Research and project managers are often behind-the-scenes people, making things happen and removing barriers such that the project personnel don’t really know what they’re doing, just that things are going well. When a problem or crisis occurs, project management is identified as the solution. Reading it like that, the comment can be seen positively – project management has helped in other areas so maybe it can help here.
It could also be a comment of support. If you’ve been having some challenges within the team implementing project management approaches or getting some team members to follow processes, the comment (especially if from a leader) can be heard as, “if you guys just listened to the project manager, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
These may seem overly-positive rationalizations, but they are legitimate possibilities when it comes to such a comment.
Get an outside perspective. Discuss it with someone who wasn’t there. Although you’ll just be representing your own perspective, describe the situation and comment to a trusted colleague, coach or mentor. They can listen without judgement, and talk you through the possible whys and wherefores of the instance.
They can also remind of you other better circumstances, that make this negative experience a true anomaly. Is this the first and only negative thing in 3 years of working with this person? Is it isolated to a specific item rather than a generalization of overall performance? Is it based in a misunderstanding?
Look carefully at your own perspective. In any situation of conflict, it is important to consider all perspectives, and to keep the focus on the work rather than on the person or personalities. That includes you. Consider the comment and circumstances and ask: is there any truth at all to it? Is there anything you could be doing differently to ensure that your contributions and challenges are understood? Perhaps you’ve been taking on too much to be able to do your best? Or perhaps you’ve not been making it known just how much you are doing already; to quote Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, “It is just as false not to blow your horn at all as it is to blow it too loudly.”
Consider the venue and context. Be sure that the emphasis and overall message is what you think it is. Perhaps you misheard, or misunderstood. Maybe your own perspective added emphasis or meaning where there wasn’t any.
This is not about blaming yourself, but it is important to be sure you’ve accounted for and owned any contribution that you’ve made to the situation. Take real opportunities to learn and improve, while focusing on your strengths.
Put it all in perspective. Ask yourself if this is a stand-alone comment, or something you’ve heard before. If the latter, see above about your own perspective. More likely, it was an off-hand, one-off comment. If all or most of the feedback to you has been positive, then put this latest in balance with that. Be sure to evaluate the feedback appropriately - don't dismiss it but don't make it mean everything. Keep it in proportion to other feedback as well as your own evaluation of your work and relationships. Think about it, talk about it, learn from it, and then move on.
Be hard on the issue and soft on the person*. This includes being respectful with yourself about a situation, considering the perspectives of others, and giving the issue the attention and concern that are appropriate, which may be very little.
Think carefully before allowing an anomalous comment to drive your behaviour or change your work. If what you’ve been doing to date has been successful, you’ll be chasing the wind if you respond too strongly or quickly to a criticism that was not constructive. Keep your eye on the real goal - the success of the project. Keeping one person happy - even the boss - should not come at the expense of the project or work, because if that fails, then everyone is unhappy. The goal should always be to keep the project on track, be respectful and balanced to everyone (including yourself), and maintaining a balanced perspective.
* I first heard this phrase in ~1997 from one of the VPs where I worked. As best as I can tell, the original expression comes from Dr. Henry Cloud. Jon Mertz elaborates on it further in the context of conflict resolution. The expression is sometimes stated as, "be soft on the people, and hard on the problem."
Who is Robyn?
My career as a research project manager is rewarding, dynamic, challenging, and fun. I'm looking forward to sharing my knowledge and experience in communication, organization, and common sense approaches in research management and leadership, and to enabling others to learn and grow in this exciting career.