vrijdag 4 januari 2013

When Good Turns Bad

What do you say to a friend who is helping you move furniture and accidentally breaks your late grandfather's self-constructed wooden chair? Or to your dad who 'knows how to fix the plumbing' but causes water damage to your kitchen?

The noble helpers
This is more commonly occurring than one would think. You will find people in many different occasions and settings in your private or professional life who are willing to take on more than called for. They either volunteer to the task or feel obliged for any given reason. Though their intentions are ninety-nine per cent of the time good, the outcome of their efforts are not always. Sometimes to the extent that these have even caused more harm in the end. But what do you say to these noble helpers? Do you confront them with their poor performance? Or do you thank them and silently regret having accepted their help?

I remember an incident, back when I was fifteen. Our family had just moved to a new area where our newly built house shared a front yard with our next-door neighbours. When the neighbour offered to build a pergola in it that would cover both halves, my parents accepted his offer, feeling somewhat relieved for having one decoration worry less. Shortly after the man finished, my dad walked over to his place to borrow his tools to tilt one of the posts that he considered off plumb. You can guess what happened next. Exactly. The neighbour was offended and felt unrecognised for the hard work he had done. And although they made peace shortly after, they never became close friends in the years following. But what was my dad supposed to do? Leave the post tilted as it was?

The institutionally empowered
Leaders can run into similar situations in professional life with people volunteering for worker's representation or supervisory boards. They may have been chosen for a particular expertise such as HR, Finance or IT, but eventually confronted with, or better yet, responsible for making decisions on a broader scope. It requires them to have an opinion about issues in a field, far from their expertise and without any business acumen. And before you know it your front yard is full with tilted posts. Only this time tilting them plumb is going to cost money, a lot of money.

Since they have been mandated to hold leadership accountable, leaders will find themselves often in a catch twenty-two. They have made a deliberate choice with ample thought, by cross-organisational collaboration and with support of various professionals, whilst having carefully weighted pros and cons. Relaying these to an institutionally empowered group to rebalance, may cause them to emphasize some pros or cons over others in order to 'tilt' to what was already considered as best outcome. An outcome they are eventually held accountable for by other stakeholders.

A propos, you obviously do not need to master something to have an opinion about it. Think of the thousands of coaches in a sports stadium each Sunday. Or millions of voters in election period. And who has never seen a TV talent show without having cast a vote on their favourite talent? Having an opinion is easy. Making a difference with it however, proves quite tough.

The ones driven by fear
This dilemma has really been puzzling me for a while now. You will find plenty of books, blogs and whatsoever to guide the advice-giver, but what about the advice-taker? How should he or she deal with good intended, but bad advice? In particular when such advice is binding.

When I find myself confronted with a limited sphere of information processing around me, my response is to question it. When someone makes a statement which seems to be proceeding along the crystallized lines of post assumptive thought, I ask “why?” or “what is really being said here?” I try to understand their thinking process and present them with mine. Explain to them in a non-judgmental way why I think their perspective is ‘tilted’. Evidence that this helps break through impasse is not inconclusive, but it at least gives me a better understanding of people’s motivation, quite often driven by fear.

Smart advice-givers will ask questions and listen first. Those who do not, are likely trapped in thinking they have to present you with the final answer. Though procedural-wise this may be true, I bet they are not waiting for a front yard full of tilted posts in the end.

As I am in it to learn, I would really like to hear from you how you deal with good intended bad advice.

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