[What to Do] When You’re the One Called a “Son (or Daughter) of a Bitch”

Son of a Bitch (S.O.B.)

Son of a Bitch (S.O.B.) by Matthias Wicke via Flickr

As in politics, hot words can get exchanged in business.

The colleague who never says peep now has new ways to describe you when they’re  asked to share their thoughts on what it’s like to work as your colleague.

When the jolt of the words has washed over you, just what do you do when someone calls you – to phrase it politely – an SOB?

While half of my California based consulting practice is individual executive coaching, the other half is working with start-up and leadership teams. That work with teams often involves data specifically collected from team members and colleagues. Real data that is amazingly powerful and when used appropriately, is highly effective, moving team performance from “just OK” to “really amazing.”

The session last month with an executive team from one of Silicon Valley’s leading company’s was typical; people performing OK as a leadership team but leaving a whole bunch of performance upside (and business dollars) on the table because of how they were (or in this case, were not) working together. They weren’t working to their potential – and most of the execs knew it.

With real team data comes real descriptions; the proverbial elephant in the room gets formally introduced, It can even have a name.

Your name.

So what do you do?

In these types of settings – ones where a gift of unvarnished feedback is being served – the important thing for you to do is to listen.

Here are six ways to make sure that happens.

  • The feedback is a gift. It may not be a gift you want, but it’s a gift nonetheless. Do what your parents told you to do (or do what my parents told me to do) with gifts; honor them by saying thanks.
  • Sit forward (if you’re sitting) to lean-in to the feedback. Surprisingly, you’ll hear it better. You avoid leaning back, or crossing arms, and all the other cues that says your either not listenting or planning your escape route. You body language is important; see this piece from US Presidential debates – and why stealing a glance at your watch is a pretty dumb move.
  • Show interest in the person’s perspective; “more curious than furious,” as psychologist Robert Cantor would suggest. Respect what they’re saying. Great listeners are able to understand the other person’s point of view. For those who think criticism only comes from people opposed to you, think of Abraham Lincoln’s phrase, “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.
  • Use great feedback collection skills – the same ones you should use as noted here for  performance appraisals. The two key elements to feedback is understanding what was done (behaviors and actions) and impact (results, feelings, and impressions.) The new standard, as Steven Jones, Ph.D. has advanced, is that people are responsible for their intent and their impact.
  • Match speaking and breathing patterns with the person. Mirroring, described here, is a highly effective way to gain rapport with other people. Rapport creates connection, which can signal understanding and empathy.
  • Listen to the words and the emotion that comes with them. Sometimes the words – you’re an SOB in this case – are just the tip of the iceberg. Gauge the emotion (the other person’s body language and affect) as well.
  • Listen calmly; be patient. Part of the drama of those situations is how people stereoptyically react. Take away the drama and you significantly alter the dynamics of the sitaution. See this classic Saturday Night Live clip (“Jane Curtain and Dan Akroyd – Jane You Ignorant Slut!“) for an example.

In the case of this session, it may have helped that some pre-session coaching elicited highly effective listening responses from the execs. A little trust – both in the session facilitator and in knowing that the motive was to help not hinder – went a longs ways.

As in many things in life, channel your authentic self. Faking things gets you into trouble.

Abe Lincoln also said “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” Treat critical feedback the same way.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.


Via LinkedIn: “Mike, years ago I ran a production operation and was routinely referred to as SOB. I let everyone know that I defined it as ‘Sweet Ol’ Bradley’. We ended up meeting the production schedule and people also ended up commenting on how they liked the ‘team’ approach we used. I was then informed that I truly was more of a ‘Sweet Ol’ guy than a ‘Son of a _____’. The key is how you interpret or react to the term/comment. Leading is not always easy or ‘friendly’. Tough circumstances require tough decisions that may adversely effect employees (hence, the SOB). Thanks for sharing your message.
Posted by J.N. Bradley, Ph.D., CBC”

“Great article. You covered all the bases of helping CEO’s to accept genuine feedback. You gave good tips to help people make those shifts in not only accepting constructive criticism, but to be self-aware of how behavior affects impact.
Posted by Linda Levin”

“It is great advice to help executives be open to candor. I am wondering if preparatory work is done to aid  executives in receiving less than flattering criticism those giving the criticism to not use it as an opportunity to make personal attacks
Posted by Alex Dail”