By Tom Cox
A client, Nick, called me to discuss his bad day at work. By "bad day" he meant that he didn't have the day he intended to have. As you'll see, it was quite something.
Nick's a director at a large firm - he's been there less than a year. This Monday he'd planned his day and was prepared to pursue that plan.
On the drive in to work, Nick called and told his assistant, Alex, to prepare some materials for a tricky job Nick would be doing that morning. By the time he got to work, however, events unfolded that would derail much of Nick's day.
A Concerned Colleague observed Nick's assistant Alex apparently preparing to undertake the aforementioned tricky job. This colleague checked the firm's database of skills and certifications and confirmed that the assistant wasn't cleared to perform this job. So the Concerned Colleague:
• didn't ask the assistant what was going on;
• didn't ask Nick what the assistant was doing;
• instead, emailed several extraneous people to try to enlist their help in preventing the assistant from performing the tricky job.
Yes, that was the pebble that would start the avalanche that would sweep away Nick's plan for his day and consume three hours of his life. It also set the stage for Nick to have multiple negative interactions with peers throughout the organization.
By the time Nick arrived, several of these peers were emailing him to try to help in various ways - Did he know his assistant was doing X? Would he like help training his assistant to do X? Are you aware that your assistant isn't cleared to do X? As additional people got around to checking their email during the day, this scenario was repeated 20 times.
The initial inquiry went well enough - Nick got the question from his first peer, explained that the assistant was just gathering the materials, and that Nick, a certified expert, would be performing the tricky job.
But by mid-day things were escalating out of control. More inquiries from peers, each convinced they were the only thing stopping a dangerous event from unfolding. Each time, Nick had to painstakingly explain what was really going on.
Nick's answers got more terse, and more irritated, as the day went on. And with each new phone call, Nick knew he was letting his irritation show, and that this was a negative first impression he was making on peers across the firm.
Nick asked what he could have done differently.
Well, several things.
Go with Plan B
First, when circumstances take on a life of their own, you may need to jettison your plan for the day. By trying to salvage his plan, Nick didn't take time to have potentially positive interactions with his peers, many of whom he was meeting for the first time.
An alternative would have been to take a little more time on the calls, using each one as an opportunity to create a new relationship, to educate, and to learn. Perhaps:
"Hey, I'm so glad you took the initiative to call. This has already been resolved, but I want you to know how it unfolded - do you have a minute? Concerned Colleague seems to have jumped to a conclusion here - my assistant Alex was never intending to perform the tricky job, he was setting things up for me to do it. I finished it this morning.
"But the real lesson is, we need people to follow our firm's values - they clearly say, if you have an issue with something a person is doing, ask them or go to their boss. If Concerned Colleague had done that, I wouldn't have spent three hours today dealing with you and 19 other people.
"So, as things are now, my plan is to push for some training around our firm's guidelines. Folks like Concerned Colleague clearly need to be refreshed on how to handle situations like this.
"That's where things are at from my perspective - do you have any questions or concerns at this point?"
No Tunnel Vision
Nick had gotten fixated on two things - salvaging his plan for the day, and establishing that the hot issue wasn't really even an issue. It would have been better to accept that the emails were out, that the circumstances had taken on a life of their own, and that this was going to be a day for teaching and learning. But because of Nick's extreme task orientation, he was unwilling or unable to shift gears. That's a hard thing for many Type A hard chargers to learn. It takes practice.
Moral: be willing to let go of the day you planned to have, and take advantage of the opportunities presented in the day you're actually having. As my friend Sarah Chambers likes to say, "The quality of your life comes down to how well you handle Plan B."
Thomas B. Cox runs Cox Business Consulting, Inc. and is creator of the blog and web radio show Tom on Leadership, aimed at CEOs and business owners. He has worked with IBM, Oracle, Tektronix, ODOT, Intel and others.