Pointing the Finger Inward

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This brief article in The New York Times on cognitive dissonance and why’s it’s so difficult to admit that we’re wrong got me thinking about an important lesson that Sei-Wook and I learned some years ago–that it’s always better to find fault with what we did or didn’t do rather than trying to blame someone or something else.

Over the years, we’ve gotten better and better at developing a decision tree on how to handle things that don’t go right. Here are some examples of things that have “gone wrong” at Barrel:

  • Client is unhappy with a deliverable.
  • There is a communication mixup with a client (e.g. they expected something to be done/completed but we weren’t all on the same page).
  • We (leadership team) are unhappy with the quality of an employee’s work or the employee’s attitude towards work, our clients, and other team members.
  • A project team misses an important deadline.
  • We learn that an employee is disgruntled about working here.
  • A valuable employee quits and cites specific work-related issues as the cause (or it’s obvious that this was the case).
  • A deliverable is found to have bugs or flaws that shouldn’t be there.
  • Project team members complain about unnecessary struggles they had to endure due to lack of direction or progress.
  • We lose out on what looked like a very promising business opportunity.

Here’s an attempt to articulate the principles for handling these types of situations in 4 steps. I’m writing from the perspective of an employer/supervisor who often has to make decisions and act when faced with these situations.

  1. Do nothing at first. Try to understand what’s really happening and see if you have all the information. If necessary, ask questions and don’t make any snap judgments.
  2. If the situation causes stress or anxiety, don’t express or show it overtly. If you need to blow off steam, do it with someone unrelated to the business or at the same level as you. I usually do my venting with Sei-Wook or the other partners at Barrel or at home with my wife Melanie. I believe it’s important not to express negative emotions about a situation at work, especially if you are in a leadership position. I’ve learned the hard way that this only undermines your ability to lead and establish credibility in making sound decisions.
  3. Reflect. Point the finger inward. What could you have done better? What did you not do? How, to put it bluntly, are you to blame for all of this? Even if you’re not directly involved, you’ll certainly find something. Think about these things and then ask yourself: what can I change or do differently the next time to prevent this? What are systematic and process-related improvements I can help effect in order to avoid this situation in the future?
  4. Don’t be afraid to get personal. If the situation calls for it, take it a step further and ask yourself: how can I change as a person so that I can avoid, prevent, or better face this type of situation in the future?

When you put the examples of things “gone wrong” through the process above, the output can lead to very productive behavior. It quickly filters out the negativity and the need to place blame and instead, directs all energy into some kind of action.

Personally, I think the first two steps are often the hardest. It’s very easy, and often even tempting, to react quickly and want to “fix” things right away. This can lead to unfortunate behavior like directing blame at someone, immediately putting them on the defensive and making it harder to give productive feedback later on. It’s also very easy to express impatience or frustration through body posture or speech, so I have to be extra aware in order to catch myself. If I can get through the first two steps, I find that it’s easier to reflect and ask myself the questions that’ll result in productive outcomes.

The need to be right, feeling completely blameless, and unceasing stubbornness–these are counterproductive behaviors that take cues from our sense of self-importance and our unwillingness to let our ego take punches. I don’t like the limited upside of having a protected and well-fed ego. As much as it hurts and as much as I have to bear the cognitive dissonance (“the stress we experience when we hold two contradictory thoughts, beliefs, opinions or attitudes”) that comes with admitting that I didn’t know better or that I was flat out wrong, I prefer the upside of learning, changing my ways, and doing things differently the next time in hopes of a better outcome.

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