Saturday, January 14, 2006

Pointing Fingers…

Or more specifically why folks who point fingers tick me off!

I’ve never really understood the practice. It rarely, if ever, actually accomplishes anything. Unless of course, you count heated, pointless, arguments as an accomplishment!

I had a rather humbling experience on Thursday.

One of the processes I’ve been handling at work is being shifted to another person in preparation for its move to production, in the transition we’ve been uncovering a number of anomalies (don’t you love that word… not problems, screw-ups or mistakes… anomalies) in portions of the inbound data.

In reviewing some of these on Thursday, the team and I determined our provider had simply matched the wrong file. Used a previous transmission from us, rather than the latest one we’d sent them.

I was elected to fire off an email about what we were seeing, and get those folks hopping on correcting the problem.

The email I sent, while firmly placing the problem in their ‘matching’ process, did not ‘point a finger’, but instead, told them what we were seeing, and why we thought, what we thought.

Well, Thursday afternoon the provider called me and we had a rather lengthy conversation over the situation. It was in the course of this conversation that I became aware that they had not ‘matched’ the wrong file, I had sent them the wrong file!

Once we concluded the conference call, I sent out yet another email, taking responsibility for the problem, and handing off a file to resolve the issue to my coworker.

I telecommuted to work on Thursday (worked from home), and never had a chance to speak with my supervisor about the issue that day.

As I was driving into work Friday morning, I’ve got to admit, I had some visions of a fairly decent ass chewing for my screw-up, (or is it for “being responsible for the anomaly we witnessed”)… what transpired however wasn’t even on my play list of possibilities.

When I saw my supervisor Friday morning, she smiled at me and said “I saw you ate a crap sandwich yesterday”. She then went on to tell me she appreciated me standing up and claiming that prize. That she hates it when folks ‘finger point’.. and commended my initial email as being factual, and not pointing a finger, but instead enlisting the others to help us resolve the problem.

It turns out, that my tendency to simply accept and acknowledge my screw-ups has been a big part of the reason I keep getting extended there. That while I don’t make many, when I do (oh… and when I do it’s usually a big one!) I step up, take responsibility and simply get it fixed, what ever it takes to do so.

I know “why” folks point fingers though, it freakin sucks to stand up and say… “Oh.. that… that was my fault”. For me anyway it triggers every fear, insecurity and anxiety I have. From being viewed as incompetent, to getting fired, they all raise their ugly heads.

I don’t know why I don’t try to play the ‘blame game’, I could, in fact had I not sent the last email (and copied every single person involved) I probably could have ‘slipped’ through this with the problem unknown but to a few folks.

See, I didn’t think that was fair though. I may not have explicitly said it in the first email, but I certainly implied our vendor had screwed up. I’m sure that there were a number of them who thought if they had, they would be in big trouble (as there have been a number of times in this process where the ‘anomaly’ was a result of their actions)… but it wasn’t their fault, I had simply selected the wrong file for transfer, and transferred it to them.

Even when something isn’t my fault, I don’t really care whose fault it is, what I do care about is getting the problem resolved, and putting some procedure in place to minimize the chance of it occurring again.

With that said, one thing I’m pretty good at is returning those things that are sent my way incorrectly. That is, when someone points a finger at me, and they’re wrong, I’ll let the world know that, in no uncertain terms, it was NOT my fault. I’ll fix it, I’ll do what I can to see it doesn’t happen again, and, if requested (by the boss) I’ll provide details as to the event; the who, what, when, where and why of it all.

As a manager, I’ve often ‘taken the fall’ when a boss asked “Who’s responsible for this!?” I figure if one of my folks did it, they work for me, I’m ultimately responsible, and that’s what I’d say. In fact, once, when asked “Who should I fire for this?” I responded, “Fire me if you need to fire someone”.

I remember the look on his face when I said that, it was priceless, something I’ll remember forever, as in his wildest dreams he never thought I’d have said that. Even 3 months later when he did fire me, I still remembered his face and thought, well, if that was at least part of the reason… it was worth it!!

In my personal relationships it’s pretty much the same thing, although sometimes I find it more difficult and I’m not sure why.

Once, as I was pulling up to the house (when I lived over on Front Street) I noticed there was smoke coming from the dining room window. I rushed into the, very smoky, house and there was my girlfriend, in tears, in the kitchen. It turned out she’d tried to start a fire in the fireplace, and as often happens in the fall, the draft was inverted and a considerable amount of smoke had escaped into the house. Well she’d tried to exhaust it by putting a fan in the window, but, that had only made things worse.

She was very worried I was going to be pissed off. I turned the fan around (which pressurizes the house a little, the smoke began exiting via the chimney, and I assured her I wasn’t upset.

How could I be? She was building the fire to set a romantic mood for dinner! How can you fault someone for doing something they perceive as ‘nice’, even if it doesn’t go 100% according to plan? I mean, her intentions were good, she didn’t intend to smoke up the place.

I cite that example, as that's how I feel about things that go wrong at work as well.

If you truly believe that a worker is intentionally screwing things up, or simply does not give two shits about the quality of their work, that’s an issue, in and of it self, which needs to be addressed on its own.

On the other hand, if you don’t believe that, then when a coworker messes up, it truly is an accident, a mistake, and they fully intended to do the right thing at the time. Chances are, they already feel like crap knowing they screwed up, any stuff you can toss on there is probably overkill and they’d never make the same mistake again anyway.

So why not just resolve the issue, get some clear indications that whatever it was, won’t happen again, and move on?

So what about you? How do you handle this sort of thing?

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Chloe said...

I have no problem saying "I was wrong." I think sometimes people lose sight of the fact that making a mistake doesn't mean you're a failure, it only means you've made a mistake. Those who really love or respect you won't feel any differently toward you.

Spirit Of Owl said...

I've actually been thinking about this on personal lines quite a bit over the past few months. Letting go of "blame," and not generating new "blame", even where it seems entirely justified, is something I've been trying to do. It's only led to me feeling a lot of anger and bitterness over the years. It's never resulted in anything positive at all.

On the other hand, being humble is something I naturally am. To the point of sheepish and even, sometimes, embarassingly obsequious. So I also have to learn to be firm, to stand up for myself, and know when I'm being walked over.

It's a tricky balance - but the thing is maybe now I'm finally starting to see where the fulcrum lies, and that's where I'm trying to head.

Great post Bill. Thanks for the soul food!

Bill said...

Chloe - Interesting that you should say folks won't think differently... actually, I believe they will.

They'll have even more respect for you. We live in a time where it seems, to me, no one wants to take any responsibility. When someone does, it seems, again to me, that everyone notices, and in a good way.

At one point in my life I viewed every mistake as a failure. Then I read about Edison making over 10,000 attempts at the light bulb, and being asked how it felt to have failed 10,000 times, at anything. He responded simply "I have not failed 10,000 times to build a light bulb, I now know, 10,000 definitive ways NOT to build a light bulb.

Spirit - I'm with you on the anger and resentment thing... blame has a way of dragging that along with it!!

To me, positive results come from change, not from blame.

It is a tricky balance, finding that sweet spot between humility, and being a door mat. I've found though, if you listen to your heart, you'll usually find it.

I know for me, it's taken a lot of years, and a lot of 'wins' professionally for me to understand that my ideas, are as good as anyone else's... and, I have as much right to have mine heard regardless of the eventual choice.

As always, thanks for stopping in and taking the time to comment!!

Comfort Addict said...

Oh, Bill. Did this ever hit me at the right time? As you'll learn if you read my latest post, I've screwed up a couple of times lately. I do admit my mistakes but I do think that I suffer for that sometimes. My company's corporate culture practices a lot of double-speak here. On one hand, they admire people who take chances and are accountable when things go wrong. On the other, very few of those people hold high positions of responsibility unless they have unblemished records of success.

I have been forced to point fingers at times by management. When I must, I try to stick to the facts, keep personalities out of it and focus on a solution and learning, not blame. It's awfully hard, though, when people are praising you for your integrity on one hand and crossing you off of the promotion list on the other. The amount of lost productivity and innovation that results from this management style is no doubt incalculable.

Bill said...

CA - I think a lot of companies have that 'double speak' thing going on. Talking the talk, but never really walking the walk.

I don't think, in most instances, companies foster an environment where risk taking is encouraged.

I wonder sometimes where we'd be as a society if it had always been this way? Every invention we now enjoy, has its roots in someone taking a chance on the unknown. Having many 'failures' along the way, until finally they found the solution.

Probably in research intense industries like pharmaceuticals, where numerous trial and error phases are expected, but few others.

I think if you're sticking to the facts, focusing on a solution, and keeping personalities out of it, you're NOT pointing fingers... you're pointing out the problem and its solution. Identifying the problem is an important part of the resolution, keeping 'persons' out of the problem description, to me is a very important step.

"The amount of lost productivity and innovation that results from this management style is no doubt incalculable."

No truer words on the topic have ever been spoken.