If a friend offends you or says something wrong, you’re probably quick to call them out for it. And if it got to a point where they were really starting to annoy you, you might even stop hanging out with them.
At work, we don’t have that luxury. We can’t just call people out who do something that bothers us. So, how we respond to comments or actions that rub us the wrong way becomes a tad trickier.
When should you speak up? And when should you let it slide?
There are certain situations in which it’s definitely OK to interrupt to set the record straight, but other times, doing so ends up escalating the situation and putting other people on the defense. And you know that rarely ends well.
To help guide you through those gray areas, here are three times it’s better to stay quiet in the moment (even when it feels unfair):
1. When Your Co-worker Presents Your Idea as Their Own in a Big Meeting
While it’s obviously not cool for your colleague to take credit for your ideas, you can’t exactly blurt out “Mine!” in a meeting.
Your best bet? Approach them after the meeting in private—and approach them with the mindset that this wasn’t on purpose.
Now that doesn’t mean you can’t be direct; it just means you don’t want to start the conversation by making them out to be the bad guy: “I heard you mention the new data strategy in our meeting. I’m really excited for it and that’s why I shared it with you yesterday. In the future, I’d appreciate if you credited me in team meetings when you’re discussing ideas we spoke about.”
Sometimes this approach leads to an apology or an explanation—one that makes you feel like it’s resolved. Other times it doesn’t.
If they try to defend themselves or pretend they did nothing wrong, you should make a mental note not to share your ideas with them in the future. That’s not the most ideal response, but it might be in your best interest if you think they’re actively using your ideas to get ahead.
2. When Your Boss Calls You Out for a Mistake in Front of Everyone
Part of being successful and getting ahead at work is learning how to own up to your mistakes and learn from them. But, this is easier said than done when your boss embarrasses you in front of your whole team by calling you out on a misstep. Your first instinct may be to defend yourself, but that’s not always the best move. Why? This will automatically put your boss in a bad light, which will likely respond in him getting defensive and perhaps even doubling down.
Assuming you did in fact mess up, apologize in front of the group (even if you have privately to your manager already). Keep it short and professional—no need to go on and on or be too hard on yourself.
Then, avoid this situation going forward by setting up a meeting with your boss and discussing how they can give you feedback in a more appropriate setting.
It may look something like this: “Again, I truly apologize for what happened, and would love to continue working with you to meet expectations. After you discussed [my mistake/where you feel I’m lacking] in front of the team, my confidence in my work was a bit shaken. Would it be possible in the future to meet one-on-one to discuss those types of personal issues?”
Often times, your manager will apologize to you and refrain from doing it again. After all, they didn’t wake up with the goal of bursting your ego. But if they do? Read this article on how to deal with a boss you don’t get along with.
3. When You Get Passed Over for a Promotion or Project and Your Less-Than-Favorite Co-worker Gets the Job
There are few things worse than being turned down for something you really wanted and worked hard for, but knowing a colleague (and especially one you’re not fond of) landed it instead of you just plain sucks. And you might want to respond to the announcement with, “That’s not fair—I’ve worked here longer!” But, as you know, saying that won’t exactly give off the leadership vibes you’re looking for.
First, put aside any personal feelings and send along a (sincere) congratulations—even if you don’t like them, you’d expect the same respectful reaction if the roles were reversed.
Then, don’t be afraid to approach your boss about why you got passed over. It shouldn’t be an “I’m better than him” conversation, but rather an honest and candid one asking what you’d have to do or change to land a similar promotion.
In addition, look to the promotee for pointers. Because, as Muse writer Lily Herman says about taking the high road when a colleague is more successful, “You learn some of the tips and tricks that are pushing your colleague ahead—and you give this person a nice little ego boost that’ll probably make him or her like you more.”
You may not be able to control how others treat you, but you can control how you react to them. And by being the bigger person, you prove you’re a professional who knows how to pick the fights that matter.