Sharing Criticism with a Colleague: Not Always an Easy Process

Several days ago I had a conversation with a colleague who had a dilemma. He was responsible for the implementation of an agency program and in that capacity had worked together with several staff members. One of those professionals was acting unprofessionally, and he was not sure how he should respond to her. His first impulse was to speak with her supervisor.

After my colleague told me about the woman’s interactions with other staff members in the agency and I came to understand how her behavior was creating a very difficult situation for those people working with her, I suggested an alternative approach to dealing with the situation. I thought it was a better idea for my colleague to speak directly with the staff person and to engage her in a discussion about her behavior.

I speculated that it was quite possible she was not aware of how she was being perceived by the other staff members. It could be that she was so focused on implementing her assignments and overseeing the program for which she was responsible that she had lost sight of her engagement with others. At times people become so wound up in their own responsibilities that they are not aware of how they behave with other people.

When under a great deal of pressure, some people may respond very curtly to others and speak to them in a dismissive tone. This can be interpreted as rude, at best, and disrespectful, at worst. When this happens the interactions are perceived as painful, and people shy away from working with this person. The result is a breakdown in communication between the staff members working together.

In the case my colleague described, the agency was in the final stages of putting on a major community event. The staff member in question was acting in a dictatorial style and not working cooperatively with the other members of the staff. She was giving directions and telling people what to do, not as if they were her colleagues but instead were her subordinates. Her interactions bordered on verbal abuse. Although the event was extremely successful, several staff members felt they had been denigrated and expressed their anger and frustration to their supervisor – my colleague, who spoke with me about how to handle the issue.

My colleague explained to me that the staff member’s dictatorial behavior was not typical of her. Therefore I thought it would be best to first discuss this behavior with her and find out if she was even aware of the impact she had on all the other staff involved in the agency’s event. Then the colleague should ask her several questions. If this behavior was not the norm for her, what triggered her speaking to the staff and responding to the staff in this way? Did something happen in her personal life that was flowing over into her professional life? Was she displacing her feelings about something else onto the other staff?

It is both professionally appropriate and more respectful to the “difficult” staff person to raise these questions with her before informing those in higher administrative and supervisory positions. Perhaps her aberrant behavior was related to something personal outside of the office; once she was made aware of how she was acting and its effects of her colleagues, she should be given the opportunity to take responsibility for her behavior and apologize to them and she should do her best to ensure that she does not speak to her colleagues this way again.

In general, open, direct, and honest communication among colleagues yields very useful feedback that can reinforce a person’s level of self-awareness. Supportive criticism provides the opportunity for a person to develop a more accurate perception of him or herself within the context of the organization. The best approach is for an offended colleague to talk directly to the person with whom he or she has the conflict. The advantage of sharing the criticism directly with the person is that it offers an opportunity for the staff member to hear the feedback, to integrate it, and to change his or her behavior. However, if the conversation does not achieve the desired results then the issue should be brought to the attention of her supervisor.

Going directly to the supervisor without such direct conversations among staff sets different processes in motion. An official report of the staff member’s behavior could lead to a formal review process depending on the extent of the unprofessional behavior. I am not suggesting ignoring the behavior. I am recommending that the initial discussion be between two colleagues. It is not always comfortable to share criticism directly with a colleague. However, when done appropriately, it not only delivers the message but also has the potential to strengthen the working relationship.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.