Sunday, March 23, 2014

When Saving Face Leads to Poor Decision Making and Poor Leadership

The importance of saving face in Asian cultures has been well documented, and Americans planning to work in Asia often are advised to get familiar with the concept.

But come on. American workers are okay with saving face, too.

A trusted boss early in my career taught me the truth of this, and I’ve been grateful ever since. Leaving people an out is many times the right, wise, and humane thing to do.

Take the day I received an angry email message from a senior manager (who’d copied his manager) that he hadn’t gotten his bonus pay, so where was it? He KNEW his manager had forwarded the paperwork to payroll!

I could have been tempted to correct this manager that he certainly had received his bonus, because I’d processed the entry and put the pay statement in the mail myself—but no. Instead I asked a question, because hey, stuff happens, even to assholes:

“Hi ______.

When you say you haven’t received your bonus, are you saying the money hasn’t been deposited into your account, or are you saying you haven’t received the paper statement? If the former, I’ll double check with your bank, because this week I processed and verified the payroll myself, and your bonus was included. If the latter, please know that I mailed the statement yesterday, and it may take a few days to reach your home.”

Now, let’s think about this for a moment.

Clearly, the employee wasn’t complaining that he’d received the money but no statement yet, because who the hell would care about that?

So, I already knew there was a good chance this person (a nasty bully who seemed to relish embarrassing people in public) hadn’t checked his damn bank balance, but I saw no reason to embarrass him by pointing that out or by stating the obvious—no paper statement in the mail is not the same thing as no money in the bank.

Well, waddaya know? After getting my response, the employee admitted he hadn’t reviewed his balance before shooting off his mouth email message, and after that initial admission, I never heard from him again (on this particular matter, that is).

But that’s okay. Another fire put out quick, fast, and in a hurry. That’s all I care about.

Giving this employee the benefit of the doubt—and an out—rather than getting defensive or God forbid, advising him to check his account before making assumptions followed by accusations about who hasn’t done what, would have had no effect but to prolong an unpleasant interaction. No thanks.

Allowing people to save face has its benefits for sure.

But saving face has its dark side, too.

Decisions, decisions!
Because when someone cares a little too much about saving his own face, decision making becomes clouded. In the worst case scenario, it becomes irrevocably compromised. 

In “Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions,” authors Campbell, Whitehead, and Finkelstein present research indicating that even good leaders can make abysmal decisions in the presence of three “red flag conditions.” Topping the list? “Inappropriate self-interest.”

(The others are “distorting attachments” and “misleading memories,” and those are fascinating to talk about as well, but I’m going to focus on the self-interest piece today.)

Campbell et al first published their research in 2009. I think it’s more relevant today than ever.

Why? Because we’re fielding more data than ever, and that means we have more stuff to sift through when making decisions.

In other words, decision making is getting more and more complicated.

And when things get complicated, people get stressed.

And when people get stressed, sometimes they begin to focus on themselves and their stress (even if unconsciously) and what certain outcomes would mean for them, personally—rather than the department, division, or organization as a whole—and that’s when “inappropriate self-interest” and the desire to save face rears its big old ugly head.

I’ll be honest. I’m as versed in CYA as the next worker, but I don’t have a whole lot of patience (and hardly any respect) for a leader who’d rather protect her self-image than solve a flippin’ problem.

It’s counter-productive, and it’s cowardly.

Don't be a sissy!
So, sure… when the price is low and the benefit is high, do what you can to help someone else save face.

But when the cost is high (say, a boatload of money  or someone else’s conscious), saving face is for the damn birds.

Grow a pair, already.

‘Nuff said.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

What a Brand New Employee Needs from You Most

I’ll tell anyone who asks that I’m a proud cynic.

The definition of “cynic” varies slightly from dictionary to dictionary, but most say something along the lines of “distrustful or scornful of others’ motives,” and I think that’s a little harsh. I prefer to define my worldview as a pragmatic recognition that most people will most of the time behave so as to further their self-interests.

And I don’t consider pursuit of self-interest terribly shocking or awful, either, because for most of us pursuing what we want is not incompatible with living peaceably with others.

Frankly, I think the world could use a few more good cynics. At least then email messages like the following would produce fewer victims.

(This appeared in my inbox today, and I left ALL the typos in for authenticity.)


Congratulation,You have won yourself Us$1,500,000.00 from our database for using western union money transfer. I?m very glade in informing today that all necessary arrangement in effecting the payment to you as it have been programmed $4,000.00,USD in your payment file.All you need to do now:
Reconfirm your information to enable us make change of the RECEIVER'S NAME to your name,so you can be able to pick it up now.
Your Name:===========
Your Country:========
Your Tel:============
However: this is to inform you that we have been carrying on your payment as to enable us make sure that the payment have be complete before the year will come at the end.
Your first payment of $4,000.00, USD is already been Programmed into System.We only give you six digital number instead of Ten for security reason avoid hackers stealing the money online.When i receive your Informations i will release the remaining Four to enable you pick it up.
{MTCN}Control Number:869440xxxx
AMOUNT: $4,000
Waiting for your information to make change of RECEIVER'S NAME to your name and release your MTCN to enable you pick up the fund.
Rev.Favor Ralph

Good grief.

But even I, an unabashed cynic, believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt until doing so proves unwise.

And when it comes to your brand new employee, bestowing the benefit of the doubt is especially important.

I’m talking about trust, people. I’m talking about treating your new employee as though you sincerely believe in his ability to competently do the job you hired him to do without an inordinate amount of oversight, double-checking, and second guessing from you.

Naturally a new employee will make mistakes (as will any employee, actually), but mistakes are how we learn. Mistakes, and the unpleasant feeling of failure, make lessons penetrate.

My good friend and consultant Helen Richardson has developed a coaching model called A New Way to Think about Work™, in which she proposes that work is a relationship. And it is.

So trust me when I tell you that treating your new employee as though you aren’t sure you made the right decision in hiring him is not a good start to the relationship.

That’s why whenever I teach anyone anything, I show him once, and then I leave him to do it. If, after reviewing his efforts the work is good, I congratulate him and move on. If the efforts are less than good, and I need to teach something again, I’ll do it. But my goal is always to show once and move on. It’s efficient, and it sends the message that I trust the learner’s ability to learn.

At some point, no matter how new your employee is or how much you perceive him as not knowing, you’ll have to relinquish control or risk compromising your new hire’s performance as his confidence wanes and his frustration grows—and that’s if he even decides to stick around.

So here’s the question you may want to ask yourself. What bad thing do you think will happen if you trust your employee to do the job without your constant supervision? And, how do you suppose your lack of trust is making your new employee feel about you and his new job? Do you think it causes him to trust you?