25 July 2012

Giving bad news at work

Just listened to a podcast from Manager Tools called "Giving Bad News" about what to do when something goes wrong at work andyou've got to tell your boss.  Reminds me why I stopped listening to them.  Should have called it "The Career Suicide Podcast".

One of the key points they make is that when things go wrong you should own the responsibility and not blame anyone else, even if they're the guilty party.  They say your boss will understand.  Not any boss I've ever met, they probably don't have time to try to understand.  If you're standing in front of your boss and 'owning the responsibility' then you are responsible.  That's responsible as a synonym for 'to blame' and 'at fault'.  Other phrases that go with the word responsible in that sense are 'poor review at annual performance review time' and 'dismissed for under performing with predjudice and no references'.

About the only saving grace I heard in the podcast is that if someone's failure to do something is the cause of your work being late or incomplete then you should do all you can to make sure that the othr person doesn't fail.  True, but there are limits to what you can do.  You can remind people and chase them up but, unless you have role power over them, you cannot instruct them.  You certainly cannot countermand an instruction from the person who does have role power over them.

Here's an example:
I was working on a project where I had a task to do.  It wasn't on the critical path but the task that followed it was so I had a firm deadline.  Before I could start my task a colleague on another team had to do another task on which my task was dependant.  Both tasks were a few hours each.  I couldn't do his task for him so ewas dependant on him doing his task.  As neither task was on the critical path there was a significant period between when we were assigned the tasks and the deadline.  In the time between when we were assigned the tasks and the deadline on his I'd periodically ask him if he'd had a chance to do it yet.  He'd responded not to worry it would be done on time.  A week before his task was due to be complete I reminded him of the deadline and asked if he'd had a chance to do it yet.  He just came back with don't worry it'll be done on time.  I spoke to my line manager and pointed out that I was concerned that he hadn't done the task yet as leaving it to the last minute ran the risk of something else coming up and preventing him from completing his task.  My line manager said to see him again if the task hadn't been done the day before it was due.  I also fired opff an email to the project manager, who didn't respond.  Each day I prodded my colleague with a reminder of the due date and askign him if he'd had a chance to look at it yet.  Each day I got a don't worry it will be done on time.  It got to the day before the deadline, still no joy so I tell my manager and email the project manager.  The dealine passes, I raise it again with my manager and with the project manager (who was, for a change, in the office and responded "What do you expect me to do about it?").  2 days after the deadline on my task my colleague finally does his task and notifies me right at the end of the working day so I have to stay late to do my task. 
Roll forwards about 9 months.  After a restructure we're all reporting to different managers and my colleague somes up to me and tells me what the situation was.  He had been specifically instructed by his line manager to not do the task until after the deadline.  Apparently she had had an arguement with my line manager and wanted to cast his team in a bad light by making us late on tasks.
Should I own the responsibility there?  Heck no!  That's an extreme example but it's rare a week goes by where I don't see or hear of a situation in our company, one of our suppliers or one of our customers where someone has failed on a task due to circumstances beyond their control.

In the podcast they say that bosses like it when people own the responsibility.  Of course they do, I expect lions are quite happy when a baby zebra wanders into the middle of the pride and lays down for a nap.  the bosses need someone to blame but are too busy to go looking, fortunately for them there's someone standing in front of them saying "I'm to blame.  It was me."

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