7 Tricky Work Situations, and How to Respond to Them


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Alicia Bassuk for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Illustration Credit: Jennifer Maravillas for HBR

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You know the moment: a mood-veering, thought-steering, pressure-packed interaction with a colleague, boss, or client where the right thing to say is stuck in a verbal traffic jam between your brain and your mouth.

Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and author of Choke, found that this analysis paralysis occurs when your brain suddenly becomes overtaxed by worry or pressure. Consequently, you find yourself unable to respond to a mental, psychological, or emotional challenge, and you fail to execute in the critical moment.

Many people experience this at work. But there are certain phrases you can keep in your back pocket when these moments come. Route your response with them, and redirect the situation to regain control.

[Here are the first two situations.]

Situation #1: Someone takes credit for your idea.

Katie is the COO of a hospitality company. She has a keen strategic mind. In a contentious moment, she recommends that the C-suite move toward a new talent strategy. The idea is met with resistance. Then Dave, the head of IT, restates her idea in his own words. The rest of the C-suite supports him in “his” idea.

It’s not a matter of if this situation happens, but when: You competently make a point. It goes unacknowledged or is tersely rejected. Minutes or days later, a colleague or manager misrepresents your point as their own, restates it identically, and is praised and credited for making it.

What you should say: “Thanks for spotlighting my point.”

Why it works: Spoken with composure, it:

o prevents you from being trivialized by serving notice about the misappropriation of your contribution
o allows you to reclaim your idea without aspersion
o gives you the upper hand when addressing the matter with a manager
o provides an opportunity for greater ownership, if delivered in front of others, by offering detail or clarification for impact

Katie didn’t skip a beat. “Thanks for spotlighting my point, Dave. There are a couple other topics worth considering in tandem with this. I’ll review those quickly and we can delve into more detail in the next meeting.” The group refocused their attention on Katie, and moved along to viewing her as the point person for the conversation.

Situation #2: You’re asked to stay late when you’re about to leave the office for a personal obligation.

Heather is a physician at a large urban hospital. Wednesdays at 4 PM she attends a one-hour clinic administration meeting. If Heather leaves by 5 PM she arrives home in time to allow the nanny to get to her own children’s after-school program on time. At 5 PM, Heather stands up to leave. One of the clinic administrators asks if she can stay a few more minutes until they are done. Heather dreads saying she has to leave to relieve the nanny, because she knows her colleagues may judge her as having a poor work ethic.

What you should say: “Excuse me, I have another commitment.”

Picking up your child from daycare, moving a parent into a care facility, or attending a surgery consultation with a dear friend are time sensitive, must-do things — especially when someone you love is depending on you. No matter how family-friendly a workplace claims to be, explaining family matters to colleagues can cause resentment.

Why it works: This sentence will minimize your risk of backlash because it:

o serves as an implicit, respectable request for confidentiality
o establishes an information boundary that puts anyone who crosses it at risk of appearing intrusive
o eliminates oversharing about the reason for your departure

Gathering her laptop and bag, Heather said, “Excuse me, I have another commitment.” Another physician asked, “Where are you off to? Anything fun?” Walking toward the conference room door, Heather grabbed her water bottle with the parting phrase, “It’s just something I committed to long before this meeting was scheduled. I’ll swing by tomorrow to get caught up.”

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Alicia Bassuk is a leadership designer and coach, motivational speaker, and founder of leadership development firm Ubica. Clients include professional athletes, C-level executives, presidential appointees, entrepreneurs, and other leaders internationally. Follow her on Twitter at @aliciabassuk.

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