Thursday, February 9, 2012

Doing the Right Thing When Wrong Things Happen

The way reality show contestants act when faced with the judges’ panel is a good lesson for most executives (whether they watch reality TV or not).

In most cases, when someone goes before the judges on a reality show, they do one of four things.
  • They claim it wasn’t really a problem.
  • They make excuses.
  • They blame something or someone else.
  • They act like what we know happened didn’t really happen.

We can call these the justify, rationalize, excuse and deny strategies. The trouble is, trying to justify, rationalize, excuse or deny when you know something went wrong just makes things worse. It makes people want to argue with you so that you “get it,” or it makes them want to punish you so that you “get what’s coming to you.”

The presence of regret is a key issue that many executives don’t know how to deal with successfully. Regret is when you think something like “how much better this would have been if it had turned out another way.” Regret isn’t the same as guilt. Guilt is when you not only regret something but feel morally responsible or worthy of punishment. For example, if you hit a child who runs out from between parked cars you would naturally feel regret… but if you were speeding or driving under the influence you should probably feel guilty as well.

When people feel guilty they should ‘fess up and face the consequences. When people feel guilty and don’t want to take responsibility—or feel the consequences exceed what they are prepared to face—they justify, rationalize, excuse and deny.

Most of us make mistakes. When we do, we should be prepared to face consequences without attracting undue argument or punishment. We should regret what happened and accept the consequences without acting guilty.

First, acknowledge what happened without shrugging it off. This means accepting the facts as they are without qualifying or dismissing. Customer service people know that the first step in dealing with a customer complaint is letting the customer know you’ve heard what they said and understand what happened without feeling the need to justify, rationalize, excuse or deny.

Or think of our driver who has hit a child in the road. We would be shocked and angry if the driver’s response were too glib or didn’t appropriately acknowledge what happened. Imagine if the driver said something like “well I hit the child and it’s really too bad, but it’s not my fault… it’s not like it was my responsibility not to run in the road and not the negligent child or the parents’ fault.” Ouch!

Secondly, if you agree it would have been better otherwise, express appropriate regret. If something you have done affected someone personally, apologize and express regret. A simple “I’m sorry” goes a long way to disarm the argue/punish response.

Finally, remain quietly optimistic about the future. Learn from your mistakes or put your mistakes in context.   In the client service example closing with a genuine desire to do better in the future, or a recap of what you’ve learned helps the customer feel their time discussing this was well spent.

Sometimes we make a mistake and the person we end up discussing it with is our boss, our colleague or our customer. When that happens it’s good to involve the person and ask, “How can we make this better?” This ONLY works once you’ve gone through the first three steps (acknowledge, express regret and behave optimistically); otherwise you just set off the argue/punish response. Note also the “we.” It is mentally getting you both on the same side of the table. Adopt the attitude that you’re going to sit side-by-side with this person and figure out what will improve the situation.

Good executives make mistakes. If they don’t they’re probably not trying hard enough. When they do it’s important to NEVER resort to one of the guilty behaviors (justify, rationalize, excuse and deny). Instead, it’s necessary to acknowledge the situation without shrugging it off, express regret with an apology where appropriate, and be quietly optimistic about the future. Where an ongoing relationship is involved, the good executive knows the importance of following up to engage the other in making the situation better.

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