We all have, or know someone else who has, received an email from a boss that changes everything. It happened to one of my friends recently. He was the golden child until he spent two weeks out of the office traveling for work. When he came back something had changed. Out of sight, out of his bosses’ perception that he was the one that could be counted on to hold things together. He had no reason to think anything had changed until he received a disparaging email multiple paragraphs long (and uncharacteristically grammatically correct so we knew it was serious) belittling my friend’s efforts on a recent project. “She tells me she wants me to take the project in this direction,” my friend explained of his boss, “so I did that, and then I get this nasty email saying I should have taken the project in a different direction. What happened? What am I supposed to do know?”
“Do you have her original instruction in writing?” I asked. He didn’t.
“Well, you can throw it back and get into ‘he said-she said’ and prepare for war, or tell her you’ll work to bring the project up to her expectations and make peace.”
“She has the power to make my life miserable – I’ll make peace.”
A wise choice. Regardless of his former golden child status, my friend was ready to find another opportunity – bored with his responsibilities, ready to learn something new, and tired of an organizational culture that failed to address mismanagement. Making war would likely have only resulted in increased scrutiny and increased hours at work trying to fulfill expectations he was ready to be free from. It’s satisfying in the moment to speak your mind, but before acting, ask yourself what behavior will result in the most satisfying outcome. Choosing to back down does not necessarily represent a weak will, but instead a pragmatic decision.