You care about your work. You think you're doing a good job. But one day your boss barrels in, slams his or her fist on your desk and lets you know what he or she really thinks about your work -- and none of it is good.
"You did this wrong. You were wrong about that. Your work has been slap--- lately. Your last project was a disaster. I can't count on you anymore. And your desk is a mess!"
What's really going on here? Are you, in fact, in a slump? Is your boss justified in criticizing you so harshly? Or is he/she just cranky and you're the nearest available target?
If you're not sure, your best bet is to say as little as possible and disengage as quickly as you can, especially if other people are present.
Give yourself time to cool off, then assess the situation as objectively as you can. If you're sure your work has been up to its usual high standards and this sudden attack really is unjustified, you'll want to set the record straight.
What you'll really want to do, actually, is storm in the next day and tell the silly old cow what an infuriating, unprofessional, uninformed, ill-prepared, unfair, ridiculous person he or she is, but it's best to resist this temptation.
Ask for a private meeting at a time when neither of you is likely to be interrupted, instead, then tell him or her politely but firmly that while you're always interested in feedback about your job performance, you believe his or her criticism to be unjustified and would like a chance to refute it.
Whatever you do, remain calm, logical, non-defensive, non-aggressive, non-threatening and non-argumentative. You're one professional talking to another about a business matter, not an errant child defending herself to an authority figure!
Once you've made your case, stop talking -- making the same case two or three times will weaken, not strengthen, it -- and listen carefully to your boss's response.
If he or she backs down -- with or without an apology -- you've accomplished your purpose. Say very little at this point or you'll -- sound as if you're rubbing in the victory. Simply thank him or her for the chance to set the record straight, and make it clear that as far as you're concerned, the matter is closed.
If your boss sticks to his or her guns, on the other hand, don't deny, argue, contradict or interrupt in any way. Just listen -- even if what you'd like to do is stuff him or her into the nearest paper-shredder -- and ask in a neutral, non-argumentative tone of voice for clarification if you need it.
If you still believe you've been unjustly accused, consider a written defense at this point. This can help you clarify your thoughts and will eliminate the danger of your being misquoted in the future.
Stick to the exact accusations against you and resist the urge to counterattack. It's often a good idea to ask that a copy of your written statement be placed in your personnel file, as well, and it's always a good idea to keep a copy for yourself.
If even a tiny part of this boss's verbal barrage was justified, on the other hand, the fact that he or she was tactless about presenting it will not necessarily get you off the hook. You'll probably have to make some decisions about what you're willing -- and not willing -- to change.
Then ask for another appointment so you can tell your boss about the changes you plan to make and ask for a follow-up meeting in a month or so, as well, so you'll know if your efforts have paid off.
Meanwhile, it might help to remember that bosses who "let loose" at employees in this manner hardly ever make it into upper management because they are, quite simply, terrible managers, so you'll probably pass this one on your way up.
And success always has been the sweetest revenge.