Keeping cool thwarts paper dagger

Dear Joan:
Recently I received a very angry memo from a co-worker. She was very upset about something I supposedly said and certainly let me know about it.

I am in a staff department and the person who wrote the memo is a supervisor from a different department. It is very important that I get along with the supervisors around the company because I have to work with all of them in my job.

She disagreed with a policy that I said she hadn't followed properly. In my job, (personnel) I am often in the position of advising people about various policies. She really took this personally even though I thought I was being very pleasant.

The problem is that she sent a copy to her boss and my boss and now it's become a bigger deal than it should have been. She is also a higher level than I am in the company and this could hurt me politically. This really irritates me and yet I know that if I write her a letter back she will use it against me. Can you give me some techniques that will help me sound non-defensive in my response? My boss is pressing me to resolve this issue, so if you could respond quickly I'd appreciate it. Thank you.

A sneak attack like this has a way of making the victim feel defenseless and furious. Yet, as tempting as it seems, ignoring it or mounting a counterattack can only make things worse.

If you write her a response, you will run the risk of beginning a cold war that could last for months or years. Responses that are reduced to paper seldom sound the way we would talk. She is likely to find your memo defensive, even if you don't intend it to be.

Your boss would probably view a written response as an evasion of the real issue: a ruptured relationship which requires careful mending. The only communication that will heal this is a face to face meeting.

Although she is probably the last person you want to talk to, you will gain in professional stature if you confront this head-on and resolve it unemotionally.

First, talk to your boss and explain what happened. Describe your planned approach and ask for feedback and advice about handling this particular person.

One approach is to set up a meeting with this individual (she will find it difficult to refuse you). Start by saying, "I'd like to work out this misunderstanding between us. You seemed upset when you wrote the memo and I'd like to clear the air and work together to solve this problem."

Hear her out without reacting defensively to any personal criticism. Say, " I'm sorry you see it that way. From my perspective . . ." Make no judgments about the memo or anything she is saying. You wouldn't say, "Copying our bosses really was a cheap shot."

Keep the discussion focused on solutions. Ask her how she thinks it could be straightened out. If you can keep her working with you to find a common ground, the meeting will have a productive outcome.

If the policy in question is one, which she sees as unfair or rigid, try to understand how it is negatively affecting her. Sometimes policies are well intentioned for the majority of cases but fall short when there is an atypical situation. Perhaps there is a way to reach a compromise. It is also possible that the policy is faulty in some way.

If the rule is one that cannot be bent, you will need to come to the meeting prepared to discuss that has happened or could happen as a result of bending the policy. Often, users of policies don't know all the reasons why it was designed a particular way. When they hear the big picture rationale, they are more willing to follow the rule.

After the meeting, debrief your boss. Ask his or her advice about how to close the loop with the memo writer's boss. If your manager knows the person, they will probably engage in some informal exchange that will end the matter. If you know her manager well, you may decide to make a follow-up phone call yourself.

If the memo writer is unwilling to work with you, let your boss know and ask how you should proceed. The problem may be more complex or political than you realize.

If others hear about the paper dagger that she sent, they will be curious and eager for your action. Blood attracts vicarious thrill seekers. Don't give in to the temptation to bad-mouth the memo sender even if peers share their own horror stories about her. Handle the situation as you handled the confrontation; with professionalism. In the long run, you'll be the winner.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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