The Case of the Dirty Diaper Over the Cliff

Let me set the scene. We get a call from a customer and boy is he mad. He rants and raves about how he’s been wronged by one of our team members. “She was so incredibly rude to me!” he exclaims. “And she even laughed at me when I explained my issue.” Honestly, what is our first thought? It may be that we can’t believe our team member would act in this manner. We may also prepare ourselves to have a serious conversation with this team member and really lay down the law. Perhaps we are even ready to put a note in the personnel file about the incident. What happens next? We’re plenty steamed, so we track down our team member and lay out the situation in a somewhat accusatory fashion offering plenty of righteous indignation in the process. Except . . . it turns out that the customer was all wrong. What happened here? I call it the “The Case of the Dirty Diaper Tossed Over the Cliff.”

In this situation, we heard a complaint (the Dirty Diaper) and immediately jumped to a conclusion (the Cliff). We failed to gather solid evidence in a calm and reasonable fashion and instead rushed into an unpleasant encounter with our team member half-cocked. In this specific scenario, had we conducted a proper investigation we would have discovered that there was a witness – another customer – who observed the whole thing. And after talking to this customer, we learned that the accuser had an axe to grind with our team member and called her names and said ugly things to her. Not the other way around. Unfortunately we failed to give her the benefit of the doubt when we launched into our accusation which of course caused unnecessary tension.

In the “heat of battle” aka/confrontational situations – it’s easy to sympathize with the party that is upset. Perhaps our team has had the type of issues in the past that are being presented in the current situation. We instinctively may have a tendency to jump to erroneous conclusions and even worse, act upon them. The fallout from this approach can be devastating. Our team member felt that we weren’t supporting her and the feelings of trust she had for us were broken. Other team members learned of the incident and the trust with them was damaged as well. Ultimately the team member involved quit – all because this matter was so incredibly mishandled.

Maybe this has never happened to you. I truly hope that is the case. I’ve seen it occur in my own organization and I’ve even been the “accuser” in a bit of a milder way, but nonetheless I didn’t do my homework first. I’ve resolved to listen carefully to information that is being provided by the complainant and ask questions sufficient to fully understand this person’s point of view. I also try to glean as many facts as possible. Often there’s a lot of emotion involved and the “diaper” gets really dirty very fast. It’s critical to be adequately sympathetic without taking sides and try to focus on the facts. Then, rather than taking the “dirty diaper” and “throwing it off the cliff,” I try to factually determine the other side of the situation without accusation or condemnation.

There will be times when the facts presented by the two parties are vastly different. Let’s assume for a moment that there are no witnesses and there’s just no way to corroborate either version of the encounter. We have to be very careful passing judgment in such situations and determining that one party is right and the other is wrong. Instead, we offer our counsel with the intent to coach our team member, and we do what we can to placate the party who is aggrieved. In a sense, we need to operate as would a judge or jury. If the evidence is insufficient, it’s pretty hard to render a clear decision. Should a pattern develop with our team member where we learn of similar issues occurring on an ongoing basis, we may need to take stronger action based upon such a pattern.

Strong teams are built on trust. We must protect this trust by handling contentious issues in a calm and measured fashion; gathering evidence, and resisting the inclination to jump to conclusions.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Father Changing Baby's Diaper --- Image by © Paul Barton/Corbis

Father Changing Baby’s Diaper — Image by © Paul Barton/Corbis

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