Turning a negative situation into a learning opportunity.
By Odette Pollar (California)
A colleague or associate has made a mistake – whether minor or grievous – and now you have to deal with it. What do you do? Yelling and screaming is tempting, but is always inappropriate. Throttling and beating are illegal. Since everybody makes mistakes, your response, if handled well, can turn the situation into a learning opportunity. It can actually enhance and help build a more trusting relationship with the other person.
Being a busy person, and knowing that you must “pick your battles,” first decide how much impact this specific mistake has upon you or your clients. Is it part of a pattern of similar issues, such as problems caused by carelessness? How likely is this to occur again? And finally, is this a peer in your firm, a professional colleague, or a staff person? This will help you compose an appropriate and professional response that fits the situation and the relationship.
In addition, consider the following before you respond:
1. How knowledgeable is the person? Is he or she aware that a mistake was made? Often what looks like a serious breach to you is not perceived as a mistake by the other person. Find out how he or she views the situation and explain, if necessary, why there is a problem and the consequences.
2. Why was the action taken? As you discuss the situation, try to understand not only what occurred, but also the reasoning and decision-making involved. This is an opportunity to learn how the other person thinks and perceives responsibilities. The ramifications of the action may not be clear to the other person. If this person is a subordinate, you likely have access to information that he or she does not; which could also explain why he or she did not perceive their action as causing a problem, or may have considered factors that you overlooked.
3. How clear was your initial explanation? Did the person fully understand what you expected? Mistakes occur in situations where “second guessing” is the norm. To prevent this in the future, explain exactly what you want and what level of authority the other person has (if they are a subordinate) Explain how and where they can get required information, and what resources are available before problems arise.
4. What is the cost now and in the future of ignoring it? Will it get better on its own? Probably not, but there are exceptions.
Guidelines For Offering Criticism
- When confronting a situation, do not judge or generalize. Be specific about the situation at hand, and what needs to occur to remedy the problem. Set aside your ego. This is not a time to discuss your world view. Distinguish between criticism and cutting someone down. Criticism should not be designed to hurt the other person or increase your stature or power. Be straight-forward, direct and objective. Before you begin be clear about why you are doing it and what outcome you desire.
- Be prompt about delivering criticism. Memories fade over time, so do it while everything is fresh. Discuss the situation as soon after the occurrence as is reasonable, but not so soon that your emotions might get the best of you.
- Support your comments, rather than saying something vague like “you are never here on time.” Provide facts and evidence such as “according to your time sheet in the last month, on these dates, you were more than 15 minutes late.”
- Consider your location. Feedback is best done in private, and with enough time to assure that a meaningful conversation can take place. Choosing ten minutes before rushing off to a meeting is not ideal. Select a time when both of you are calm and focused.
- Think about whether this is really a skill deficiency. Criticizing something a person cannot change is hard on both parties. If this is an issue that additional training can address, pursue that route.
- Plan the discussion. Rehearsing is helpful. Consider writing down key points to help you clarify your thoughts. This is too important an interaction to do spontaneously.
This is a two-way conversation. It is important to be a good listener and invite involvement in solving the problem. Always stick to issues related to work. At the end of the discussion, the next steps to solve the problem should be clear. Be attentive and considerate. Close your door, hold your calls and offer your full attention. Remember to be fair and never hold a person responsible for meeting a goal that you neglected to tell them about.
Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload.