React or Respond?

“Bad news never had good timing.”

– John Mayer

Everyone that operates a company understands that mistakes are costly. This is why we invest so much time and effort in setting standards, drafting SOP’s, and creating a system of “backstops” that are designed to detect errors quickly. Early detection many times gives us the opportunity to make corrections before our money, image and integrity are put at risk.

When mistakes make it through the gauntlet of backstops and ultimately affect your business, how do you respond? It’s natural to respond to pain with anger. Nobody welcomes bad news. This is a lesson of leadership that I have learned from both observing others, and drawing from my own experience. One of the biggest reasons for a failing venture that can never seem to get back on track, is a leader’s inability to properly handle bad news. Let’s talk reality here. There are a hundred reasons every day to lose your cool . Some of these are simply irritations. Some however are game changers:

  • Your best employee quits to go to work for your biggest competitor.
  • OHSA shows up on your doorstep to “investigate” something.
  • Your best customer just filed bankruptcy.
  • The all new and improved “powder coat” paint is falling off the equipment in sheets.
  • A union grievance shows up on your desk.

These are all “external” issues and it’s a fact of life that sometimes, trouble visits uninvited. You did nothing to deserve it and you couldn’t do anything to prevent it. These items alone can create enough turmoil to affect the normal ebb and flow of the departments, but even more disquieting are the miscues and errors that are made “internally”.

  • We made repairs without getting a customer approval.
  • We wasted half a day and a tank of gas because we had the wrong address
  • That brand new service truck just got totaled.
  • Our welder wasn’t wearing his face shield, now he’s at the hospital.
  • We installed the seals backwards and now we have to replace the entire assembly.

Sound familiar? Shall I go on?

In many of these cases the leader of the team must take responsibility for the failures of his department. Not only are there monetary consequences, but these issues also carry an emotional toll.

In situations like this, many times a leader under pressure will succumb to the “throw them under the bus” syndrome. The natural reaction in the face of trouble is to lash out, and the FIRST order of business is normally to fix blame on the offending party, even to the point of terminating their employment.  Doing so allows the leader to feel that they have appropriately “dealt” with the situation, expunged their record, and corrected the imbalance.  In many cases however, all they have done is alienated team members and created an atmosphere of fear and instability.

I am fond of suggesting (but not always executing) a “response policy” for leaders who naturally struggle with a propensity toward anger. It’s called “Under-React First” (URF). This is an original Baiocchi-ism. It promotes the idea of creating emotional “distance” between the leader and the issue at hand. This distance is created purposefully.  It employs a method of decidedly choosing to under react to every obstacle, without regard to its size, cost, or ramifications.

The mental secret behind employing URF is the word FIRST. Using this technique, I am mentally deciding to initially under react to the news, giving myself permission (in my mind) to over react later. That allows me some level of mental escape from the emotional upheaval, blame, and chaos surrounding the bad news. Properly executed, this posture does 3 important things.

1.)  It prevents you from “killing the messenger”. Your people will be more willing to actually communicate known issues (instead of hiding out), if they know that their boss won’t take their head off when they deliver the message.

2.)  It allows you to focus on gathering data, and formulating a plan to solve the problem, instead of wasting time looking for who to blame.

3.)  It focuses the team on alternatives and solutions, which at that moment are the only things that will resolve the issue.

If the situation warrants it, I will allow myself to overreact later. In the moment of crisis however, someone has to be in control, and, since I am the leader, I am constrained to choose me. I do what I can to emotionally disconnect, and just let my mind record the information. I don’t process it. I don’t decide anything while I am listening. I simply listen to the whole story.  Then I investigate the claim.

  • What am I missing?
  • Does the original story make logical sense?
  • Who else has been informed about this?
  • Has the information been independently corroborated?
  • Who else can help us with this?

I choose to believe nothing at full face value going in. I use the old Ronald Reagan theory of “Trust….but Verify”.  Doing this, in an emotionally detached fashion, in many cases allows me to relax enough to see some obvious solutions that are difficult to formulate when your blood pressure is 300/180.

This philosophy has served me well after investing the last 18 years running a business with 5 partners. It’s a code that can be difficult to live by, but practicing it, puts you in control of your circumstances, instead of your circumstances controlling you. This is simply a behavioral decision. The fact is, when I am able to use this method of response, I seldom if ever “over-react later”. Nothing cools the fire better than properly executed counter measures and thoughtful responses.

Let me be clear. When errors are made, and policies are violated, punitive measures may very well need to be taken. Using URF, I am simply moving this review and possible reprimand to a time AFTER the initial problems have been addressed, and the countermeasures are firmly in place. In my view, punitive measures should be limited to:

  • Repeated failures and the long term inability to perform.
  • Inability of a staff member to consistently deliver on mutually determined goals.
  • Outright insubordination and willful disobedience.

These all require decisive action.  These circumstances however, normally develop over a substantial period of time, and the resulting consequences (if rendered properly) require a significant degree of assessment and due diligence.

There are also times (more often than we would like to believe), that the failures of a subordinate need to be met with your unequivocal SUPPORT instead of your direct reprimand. Leaders should not measure outcome and intent with the same yardstick. The failure of a team member could very well be due to inadequate training, the lack of a sound policy, or the absence of the tools needed to get the job done. In other words, the very failure you are blaming on your employee could very possibly have been prevented if YOU had done a better job of being a leader.

With this in mind, do your best to meet the failures of your employees with a pragmatic posture. Resist the standard emotional reaction, and move that energy into investigation and planning. Focus on reading the intent of the individual, as well as outcome.  After showing your subordinates that you are willing to share the heat for their failure WITHOUT throwing them under the bus, you very often will see an employee who will commit to working harder and being more consistent. Fear of termination and harsh reprimand normally drive acts of desperation, and even retribution. Demonstrating restraint, and defending a subordinate in the midst of disorder and confusion engenders the kind of loyalty that you could never buy for wages.

In the face of trouble, to be apprehensive and to fear the future is normal. These responses come from our basic instinct as living creatures. The common reactions of “fight and flight” are born out of our instinctual proclivities. It is both our spiritual depth and our intellect that allows us to rise above reaction, and operate with determined precision, even when our natural inclinations instruct us to do otherwise.


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