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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Worth what you paid for it

Reader-submitted question: I need some free communications advice. My boss made a mistake and now nobody can get past it. We're doing everything the right way now, but everyone's still upset about what happened a while ago. I am pretty sure this is a communication problem. How can I make people be reasonable? This is wrecking all of our work. I mean, I can barely get anything done because people are mad about something that's not even an issue any more.


You know, this doesn't sound like something you should be trying to fix with free communications advice you got off the Internet. This sounds like something you'll need your own communications person for. I'm sure you can find someone to help out. There HAS to be someone out there who's disillusioned and looking for a change.

I will give you some advice to hold you over until you can hire someone, though. Everything I am about to say is based on an assumption that whatever happened wasn't actually illegal or incredibly horrible. I'm guessing that it was just a mistake and not, for example, the sort of thing I don't want to write about on my blog because I don't want to become the queen of Google. I'm also guessing that people aren't rioting, they're just angry.

First, you're making it sound like this is someone else's problem. It's not. When you don't communicate effectively, it's your problem. It's not the other person's job to make sure he or she understands you; it's your job to make sure you're understood. You need to stop thinking that people are unreasonable.

You're also trying to move beyond whatever the problem was without really addressing it. You're a step ahead of your audience. When you've made a big mistake, you can't get past it in a hurry. You need to apologise and apologise and apologise. You need to wallow in it. You need to humble yourself before you can move on.

Yeah, I know: your boss doesn't want to humble himself (herself?). Too bad. If he doesn't humble himself, other people will do it for him and he'll probably end up getting fired. It's hard to give specific advice without really knowing the details, so I will simply say that the way your boss does this will depend on the situation. Maybe you need to call a public meeting. Maybe you need to buy ads in the paper. Maybe you need to meet privately with representatives of whatever group is upset with you. Maybe you need to donate a large sum of money to an appropriate local cause. Maybe you need to set up a watchdog organization. Most likely, you'll need to do several of these things several times and add on a few other things that are appropriate to the situation.

Whatever you do, your message will be I am sorry. What happened was wrong. It was not up to the standards you expect of me, and not up to the standards I expect of myself. I will totally understand if you have lost confidence in me. I want you to know that I have learned from this experience, and I promise that this will never happen again. I will prove this by (pick an appropriate way to prove it -- ideally, let the angry people pick it). From now on, things will be different. Starting now, I will (list the things you plan to do, and let the angry people add a few things to the list).

You see, you've missed a step. You can't force people to believe in you after they start to think you're a screw-up. You have to earn their trust, and it's going to take some time. They have to know that you know you screwed up.

You're going to have to wallow for a long time. This won't be over in a two-hour public meeting. After that, you are going to have to prove that things are different. How you prove it will, again, depend on the situation. It's a good idea to let the angry people choose how you'll prove it. This has three advantages: it gives them some feeling of control, humbles your boss, and makes it less likely that they'll actually call for your boss's head. Then, only after lots of proving that you're really sorry, you can get on to your normal work. If you don't do this, other people will keep bringing up whatever happened, and you won't be able to get any work done.

Do you think your boss would be willing to do this?


Anonymous said...

Wait, who's doing the apologizing, the reader or the boss? You make it sound like the reader did something wrong and needs to apologize.

Cue up the lawyers: you forgot a disclaimer that you're not responsible for any actions the reader decides to take. (Does a retroactive statement apply?)

Megan said...

Both have done something wrong, and both need to apologise. The reader's error is in thinking that this is someone else's problem.

The only one anybody will see apologising is the boss, though. He or she is the face of the organization. The reader will probably end up helping with the apology and the follow-up.

An apology for something that isn't really really bad shouldn't get you in trouble with any lawyers. All of the advice I've given goes out the window if there's some legal problem. If you've been caught defrauding investors, for example, it's more than a communication problem and an apology's not going to cut it.