How Do You Respond When Something Goes Wrong?

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Monday, 8.08pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off. – General Colin Powell

I think when a lot of us say we want more responsibility when what we really mean is we want to be paid more for doing the same job – or better still, less of it.

Okay, that’s a little cynical perhaps.

Or is it?

The one thing every one of us have experienced is something going wrong – and how we react in such situations is something I started thinking about recently.

Our approach starts right from childhood.

We don’t want to do the wrong thing, to get in trouble but it must often seem to children that they can barely move through the day without doing one wrong thing after another.

Running, jumping, screaming, throwing, shouting, wrestling – everything remotely fun seems to make a grown-up appear and tell you off.

We must grow up with a healthy sense of not wanting to be in trouble.

Unless, of course, we give up trying and just accept that’s what’s going to happen – or we think through the worst case and decide we can live with that.

If you stop for a minute and think you’ll see that there are lots of directions you could go in when something goes wrong.

As the picture shows, it ranges from putting the blame on someone else to running away.

But there are a few times when we should stop and think before we act.

Specifically, in a work related situation what should you do when something goes wrong?

The way that probably will not work is the one where you try and shift responsibility onto someone else.

We all see these programmes where someone gets fired because they do something wrong.

For a start, the person firing you is probably doing you a favour by releasing you from a toxic environment.

That’s because the only people who manage to remain are the ones that hide what’s going wrong – and that doesn’t usually end well.

The other thing that you should be careful of is taking all the blame yourself.

In most situations you know a lot about what is going on and so, when something goes wrong, it seems like everything is out in the open and you’ll be seen as a failure.

In reality, very few people care about how things are going as long as they’re getting done sort of on time and on schedule.

There are two more approaches that don’t really help.

The first is trying to avoid doing anything that could be seen as wrong in the first place – hiding behind legal clauses for example, or just not getting into the situation in the first place.

That’s because if you do something wrong the legal defence won’t help your reputation, and if you don’t take a risk every once in a while life gets a loss less interesting.

The second is getting too analytical over the whole thing and working through complex chains of cause and effect.

You see this happen all the time on the news as journalists try and trip up politicians by asking them hypothetical questions – what would you do if this happened and that came to pass, for example.

The politicians, sensibly, refuse to speculate unless they want to and make up a possible future that they would like to happen.

There are two questions that you should ask and that can help.

The first is “what does this mean from the customer’s point of view.”

The fact is that the problem will affect someone – and what matters is just how much that is.

Does this mean a day’s delay, a week, a month, a year?

Have you missed your chance altogether or can you rearrange?

Are they facing a yawning chasm or is it a slightly bigger step than they were expecting?

The second question is “what’s the next action.”

The thing we have to really really get is that we can’t change the past or influence the future.

We can only act in the now – and that means thinking of the next thing that needs to be done to make the situation better.

Finally, there are two things to keep in mind that may help.

The first is to always think of the worst case situation – what is really going to happen if things go wrong?

In the world of work this is usually something you can live with and come back from.

The other thing is to expect that people won’t deliver – so set your expectations accordingly and have a backup plan.

That way when they do deliver everything they promised you can be happy to be proved wrong.

And if they don’t, you can deliver what you need to do anyway.

Because what really matters when you’re responsible is that you deliver.

Eventually.

Cheers.

Karthik Suresh

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