From the Wards
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The Victim of an Angry Attending: Five Ways to Deal with Criticism

I’m careful to put my mask on as I enter the operating room and make way to the anesthetist’s station. I gather the necessary tools from the cart’s drawer and place them on the table attached to the anesthesia machine. I take the laryngeal mask out of its plastic container and prepare it to be inserted into my patient. The CRNA begins to sedate the patient as I wait patiently listening to the beep of the monitors and the radio play quietly in the background. Just as the patient drifts to sleep the anesthesiologist walks in and hastily approaches the operating room table. I sigh as I see it’s the doctor who berated me yesterday for asking him where his colleague could be located.

He stands adjacent to me, watching me bag oxygenate the patient. To my surprise, he begins to help and instructs me as I work to make sure no air leaks out of the mask. I begin to thank him a few times as my focus narrows on making sure the patient is being oxygenated. The next thing I know, he is yelling at me again to stop thanking him. A bit shocked, I pause for a moment and wonder how someone can yell at someone for thanking them, and then grab the laryngeal mask and prepare to insert it into my patient’s airway. To my relief, I am able to insert it on my first try without any complications. Failure would have surely resulted in disparagement. Finally, I promptly connect the mask to the oxygen stream and my work is done. As I step back from the table I hear snippets of the anesthesiologist’s conversation with a scrub tech acknowledging how he has yelled at me twice now in the last two days.

The point of my story is to outline a scenario that many of us as students have probably experienced: being the target of a superior’s anger. This isn’t the first time that an attending or senior has treated me poorly and unfortunately, it won’t be the last. So how do we deal with, and prepare for, these inevitable encounters with our not-so-happy superiors? I’ve made a list of five strategies to keep in mind during these scenarios.

1. Take It With A Smile
If you happen to become the target of an angry attending, don’t get angry. Don’t retaliate.  Do your best to brush it off, move forward and take it with a smile. When you fire back, it only fuels the fire (no pun intended) and makes the situation worse. This may be hard for some people but I can assure you that responding with respect and not stooping to their level will make your situation much better than if you had escalated the situation. This is because by responding in a respectful way you effectively end the encounter and are able to move on with your day.

2. Stay Focused
If you become the target of a superior’s criticism, the last thing you want to do is step out of line and give them permission to condemn you. To avoid this you need to make sure you stay focused, show up on time, be polite, complete your assigned tasks and do as you’re told. In a way it prompts you to step your game up. The unfortunate reality is that some people displace their anger to people beneath them on the pecking order. A way to avoid this is to stay focused and to not give them an opportunity to criticize you.

3. If You Make a Mistake, Own Up To It
If it turns out the criticism is valid, even in a small way, own up to it. This shows your superior that you’re mature and it allows both of you to move forward. Most people will respect you more for owning up to your mistake. When you own up to your mistake, you are able to put the incident behind you and move forward with your learning endeavors.

4. Stay Professional
Avoid gossiping to colleagues. This is a good rule in general. The people you confide in may not understand the situation or may not have been there. It may cause them to label you as a gossip or worse, they may side with their colleague whom they know better. Talking about these confrontations at work is unprofessional and you should do your best to avoid it. That being said, if the situation troubled you and it helps you to decompress by talking about it, reach out to an advisor, counselor, spouse or friend.

5. Keep The End in Mind
You’re there to learn, so you should do your best to not allow a negative situation to impede your education. If possible, keep your distance from that particular individual and find someone who is willing to teach. The reality is that not all people want to teach and there will be people looking to take their anger out on inferiors. Whatever the reason, remember that you’re there to learn and that you should not let negative people influence that.

My goal is to give a short outline of what to do when we’re faced with confrontation from a superior. It is by no means exhaustive and I understand some tips are more obvious than others. I just want to offer the basics on how we can respond and thrive in the face of criticism from our superiors. In the end, my situation did not warrant a formal complaint to my school. If you believe that you were in a situation that made you feel uncomfortable and impeded your learning experience (after all we are paying a lot of money to be there) then it should be reported.  This will hopefully help prevent another student from having a similar experience. These situations are inevitable in any classroom or work setting and we will encounter them outside of the hospital as well. Just remember to take it with a smile, stay focused, own up to your mistakes, stay professional, and keep the end in mind.

Antonio Adiletta Antonio Adiletta (1 Posts)

Contributing Writer

Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine

Antonio Adiletta is a third-year medical student at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine from Lancaster, PA. During his first two years, he served as President of his class and helped create a General Surgery Interest Group. He is currently interested in Diagnostic Radiology.