Executive Careers Blog

When Execs Go On The Attack

“Your audience is going to hate you,” my client said.

That didn’t sound too good. “Couldn’t they just thoroughly dislike me?” I asked.

“Prepare for hatred,” the client said. “Then, if they simply dislike you, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

The client worked for a Fortune 100 company, determined to change the leadership style of the top thousand executives. My job, as part of that change, was to facilitate a series of leadership workshops.

The client expected the worst. These execs would resist everything - the change, the workshop, me.

“Here’s some advice for when you’re attacked,” the client continued. “Be a mirror.”

It didn’t take long, during the first workshop, for one of the executives to get annoyed. “THIS IS A COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME,” he said loudly.

My instinct was to defend the program, defend myself. Then I remembered the mirror. A mirror doesn’t take things personally. A mirror reflects back.

“Interesting comment,” I told the annoyed executive. Then I turned to the group to reflect his comment back: “What do the rest of you think?”

Well, the rest of them thought all sorts of things.

One agreed with “complete waste of time.” A few seemed to think, “Actually, it’s only a partial waste of time.” Others liked the workshop, most wanted to continue. So we did.

My client, it turned out, had been right about the mirror, but wrong about the audience. They didn’t hate me, and the reason was simple: there was no “they.”

Tip: It’s easy, when you look at a group of people, to see “they.” But it’s more effective to see individuals. If someone attacks, stay neutral, stay relaxed, and toss the comment back to other individuals.

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Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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