A small retraction needed to save face

Wouldn’t you know it – literally 10 minutes after I hit the send key on my recent column, (OK, it was actually the enter key, but send sounds more dramatic) that sent it winging its way through the ether to my editor, something happened to make me rethink the thing.

It was 10 minutes after enter that I sat down to lunch with a guy I work with and have a lot of respect for, and one of the things we got to talking about was the importance of clarity – the need to be definitive and absolute in setting direction in an IT organization. I was expressing a great affection for the very rare CIO who talks like this:

“OK, now that I’ve heard everyone’s input, I’m going to make a decision, ’cause that’s my job as CIO. The decision is option A. The decision is not option B. Does everyone here understand that I’ve decided on A and not B? Please nod your head that you understand. Let me say this again. Not B, but A. If you voted for B, sorry, you lost. Let me be clear: no work should be done on B, I don’t want to hear about B any more, the discussion is now closed – all of us are now working on A. Got it? A not B. Not B but A.”

For those who read the column a month back, apologies for the repetition. Call it reinforcement of a point. Anyhow, as my associate and I were ordering our usual scotch and water and strongly agreeing on this good thing called clarity, he added something that made me think.

“Clarity’s always good thing,” he said, “but you’ve got to make sure you get it without causing anyone to lose face.” Lose face. I’d forgotten about that one – an important concept, an occurrence to be avoided, a negative outcome that people are particularly sensitive to.

He pointed out that for all the points you can gain through clarity, you might lose many times more by putting someone in a position where they feel as if they’ve lost face. This is especially true of people from cultures where the rough and tumble of a winner-take-all debate is actively discouraged, cultures where the worst thing you could do would be to publicly point out where someone was wrong. It’s a tough lesson to learn for some of us, especially if we grew up in a work environment that encouraged the knock ’em down drag ’em out kind of debate.

I used to work for a VP who would walk into a meeting, state the two sides of any issue, slap his watch down on the table and say “Gentlemen, we’ve got 20 minutes to decide one way or the other. Last man standing gets his way.” Needless to say, saving face wasn’t a consideration in these meetings.

But I’d like to think we’ve grown up since then. Maybe it all comes back to a good piece of advice I got from one of my earlier bosses. He said that a good manager “always praises in public and criticizes in private.”

Same thing goes here, I guess. It’s OK to be loud and clear about the positive aspects of a chosen direction in front of everyone, but when you’re telling the folks on the other side of the decision (“Sorry, you didn’t get your way, and you’re just going to have to suck it up”), that’s a conversation that should be held in private.

And this is where my limited retraction comes in: aim for clarity, but not to the point where a certain portion of your shop or, worse yet, one individual is left offside and potentially embarrassed.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at isguerrilla@hotmail.com.

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