Think Before Responding to Baseless Accusations

by Daniel B. Griffith, JD, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

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As you endeavor as a leader to make decisions that are fair, well reasoned, and considerate of others’ interests, there will inevitably be individuals who take exception and react with baseless accusations and attacks.

For example, your statements and decisions are met with judgmental labels (“stupid,” “silly,” “crazy”), emotional outbursts (“that’s unfair,” “you don’t care about …”), or cynical or sarcastic comments (“here we go again,” “that will go over well with …”). Some attacks become personal, such as accusations that you “aren’t thinking straight,” “have a personal agenda,” “always seem angry about this issue,” “are biased against me,” and “are being too emotional.” The intensity becomes heightened when attacks occur in meetings where others are present or when there are multiple accusers. And email gives accusers time to formulate lengthy messages that often include magical thinking about your alleged mistakes, poor judgment, and bad character.

Depending on the nature, context, and intensity of the attacks, the temptation is to react in ways that you will regret. Consider these suggestions for responding differently:

Pause and take time to formulate an appropriate response. When falsely accused, our emotions kick in and our natural instinct is to want to react immediately, often with counterattacks and abrasive words of our own. Realize that you don’t have to react and be baited by your accuser. Pause, take a breath, and consider how you will respond in a way that is professional, mature, and rises above such base behavior. Should you respond at all? Should you respond now or later? What response is due?

Consider ignoring the attack. You are a caring and careful leader. Your decision, statement, or action on which the accusation is based was thoughtful and by no means intended to cause harm. Your integrity and good judgment demand that you stay the course. Would dignifying the attack with a response risk revealing a defensive posture that isn’t called for, particularly if your accuser is expressing a minority viewpoint and others impacted by your action are supportive?

Deflect the attack. Roger Fisher and William Ury, authors of “Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In,” use the term “negotiation jujitsu” to describe actions for avoiding direct confrontation with adversaries. Similar to a move in many martial arts disciplines, you can deflect a direct blow and minimize its impact and then use the attack to your advantage. You might quickly defuse your accuser’s anger by acknowledging his comment or the hurt he is communicating, or by saying “thank you for sharing your concern.” You might express that, while you stand by your decision, you will take his concerns into consideration as you implement it. You might inquire about the basis for his accusation, noting that he can help provide clarity as you work to refine your approach for the benefit of all. Lastly, if the attack is personal, note how such accusations are not helpful and that you would prefer he join you in focusing on solving a problem you both share.

Respond objectively and succinctly. Perhaps behind the acerbic comments, you realize your accuser has misconstrued the situation, misrepresented the facts, or revealed some other misunderstanding that requires you to respond more directly in order to set the record straight or clarify your intentions. Remain objective and factual in explaining your decision and motivations. Inquire about the basis for his belief that led to the accusations. Clarify aspects of your decision that he has misunderstood. Stress your willingness to engage in conversation provided it doesn’t involve pejorative comments and pointless arguments. By all means, don’t be baited into long-winded point/counterpoint arguments. If conversation heads that way, extricate yourself and offer to discuss the matter later as long as decorum and civility are observed.

Confront your accuser privately (in most cases). It is generally best to respond to your accuser in private conversation. This is easy enough if the accusation occurred through a private exchange. If the accusation arises in a meeting involving others, tell your accuser that you will not address the matter during the meeting but are willing to meet privately later. On the other hand, if there are multiple accusers or the accuser has sympathizers, you might need to take the opportunity to address the matter head-on with everyone, being sure to maintain your composure.

Consider your limits for patience and tolerance. Attacks involving foul language or culturally, racially, or sexually inappropriate language generally require more immediate, less tolerant responses. While we must be patient when heightened emotions and inept communication skills contribute to individuals’ misguided use of labels, there is no room for clearly offensive and bigoted language. An immediate response denouncing the language and ensuring it desists is warranted. A follow-up with the offender, including possible corrective action, is also due.

The same rules apply for email. You know not to be baited to respond point-for-point via email to your accuser’s email harangue. If a response is due, keep your fingers away from the keyboard and move the conversation to a face-to-face exchange.

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