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Influence, Power, & Politics

Learn How to Respond to Common Workplace Put-Downs

Imagine these separate scenarios happening in one week at work:

This is the third time you’ve been interrupted by the same person during a single meeting…

You offer a suggestion and, as often happens, a colleague dismisses it as something tried before that won’t work now…

At an after-work social gathering you’re asked personal questions about your salary and the cost of your home…

You walk into a meeting late and someone who is after your job quips, “Look who decided to join us”…

An idea you introduced gets no traction until it’s introduced a half hour later by someone else.

Countless people drive to work wondering what will hit them that day — worried they’ll be caught off guard, taken for granted, used, insulted or cornered.  The 2013 and 2014 Everest College Stress at Work Surveys indicate that at least 80 percent of Americans are “frazzled” at work.  Low pay, heavy workloads and uncertainty contribute to this problem but so, too, do co-workers.  

When people experience a lack of control at work, their stress increases and their interpersonal relationships suffer.  Under such circumstances, it becomes imperative to know how to manage your environment.

By being predictable, easily provoked to defensiveness, frustration or acquiescence as examples, we give others the power to manage our lives and stress level.

I watched a person skilled at taking more than his share of control make this happen to an entire group of people.  At meetings he would regularly act reluctant to agree to do something the rest of the division wanted to do.  He’d argue against proposals until all were focused on convincing him.  Then, when the meeting was about to end with everyone frustrated, he’d say, “If this is really important to all of you, I’ll go along with it.”  He was made an instant hero each time he did that. 

People like this know how to surreptitiously manage and it doesn’t hurt their plans when others make it easier by not noticing and not knowing how to respond. 

With stress rising for most of us at work, it’s even more important to make sure we’re not predictable, especially in the presence of people who will use that for their own ends.  Are you easily frazzled, thrown off your game, so to speak, or made angry?  Do you slip into conflict, get flustered and distracted by the actions of someone who stands to gain if you do?

Conversations are the building blocks of careers.  If they go wrong on a regular basis, potentially successful careers can be derailed.  It’s wise to take a good look at how you contribute to negative conversational patterns by responding in predictable ways that give others the upper hand. 

Let’s look one of the situations I cited earlier.  If someone dismisses an idea you suggest as something that’s been tried before and didn’t work, you are facing a communication choice point.  Many people would be cowed by this kind of criticism.  Others might be provoked to a harsh response.  A more useful comeback might be: “Yes.  We did something like it.  And we learned from it, so we’re better positioned now.”

Take note of some of the put-downs where you work.  Think of how you would have handled them or could have handled better the ones that happened to you.  Stress at work can be lowered considerably by the confidence derived from knowing you can handle put-downs, slights, taunts, and tests.  While it would be preferable to just do our jobs well and not have to be bothered with such provocations, while insisting on that someone else is showing how he or she can handle whatever comes along.

Photo: Diego Schtutman/


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