Everyone makes mistakes — even IT pros. When they happen, says a CIO, don’t send an email. Read how to handle it

In my 35 years in IT, there have been many problems and times when the situation looked awful or even hopeless.  Unforeseen issues.  Stupid mistakes.

When they happened I made the long walk to someone’s office to give the bad news.   I made it our departmental motto for our service staff.  “Don’t send an email – get on the phone. Better still, if you can, go in person. When you don’t know the answer,  when the problem is severe, when you really don’t want to call -– that’s the time to do it and do it now.”

Everyone has to deal with crisis in the workplace.  The fact is, errors happen.  Sometimes it’s our own mistakes.  Sometimes it’s out of your control – a partner, supplier or an employee does something which has a very damaging impact on your or your or your company.

There is an old Zen proverb which says that “you can’t try not to fail”.   So how can you deal with the pressure to be right all the time and when they happen, to deal with those awful mistakes and their consequences?

We all experience it differently but each of us has experienced that awful feeling.  For many, it’s the cold rush of adrenalin sends a wave through your entire body. It’s the feeling you get when the awful realization sinks in – something has gone very, very wrong.   Psychologists have a name for it.  They call it the “flight or fight” response.

It’s a very normal part of the human condition.  It’s an automatic response – there is nothing you can do to prevent it.   But as the name implies, it’s a reaction that is intended to elicit a choice – we choose to confront the problem or to flee.  For either response, the adrenalin is useful; it primes the body to the heightened physical activity of combat or hasty retreat.

In our ancient past, the binary choice was a matter of survival.  But in the concrete jungle, in the office towers that we now inhabit, the reaction is a relic of our past – in polite society neither fight nor flight is appropriate.   Expressions of physical anger or running from a room would do more damage to a corporate career than the original error that created the panic response.

So what do we do? We suppress.  We try to ignore the response.  We take control.  We “suck it up”.   We hide the response and sometimes, tragically, we hide the mistake.

That’s the worst thing to do.

Instead of fuelling a response, our bodies marinate in an “adrenalin stew”.  Physical discomfort keeps nag us.  Impatience with ourselves spreads a general discomfort.  Fear of discovery brings back the cold rush of panic over and over.

There is a remedy for this condition; as useful and practical as it is simple.   What you have to do is get in front of the situation.  I’ve known for some time that when you do get into a panic situation, the worst thing to do is to suppress it.  Just acknowledge it for what it is.  I just say to myself, “oh, this is what panic feels like.”  Believe it or not, it will work.  There’s a wealth of science that shows the effect of this technique.

But once you get beyond the physical reaction, how do you deal with the situation?

Here’s a piece of advice I got from a person I know and respect who had himself hit one of those horrendous moments.  He was left holding the bag when someone else made a disastrous error in judgment.   I’d have to betray a confidence to give you the full picture.  You just have to believe me that the situation was complex and the consequences were severe. When I hear the story initially, I felt terrible for this person.   I had no idea how anyone could get out of this.

The next day, and against all odds he told me how he had brought this awful mess to a positive solution.    I was overjoyed for him.  I was also amazed at the improbably outcome.

My only question was “how did you do it?”

“I had a mentor who taught me that you need to be able to give bad news well,” he relied.  “It’s what I promise to my clients.  There WILL be mistakes.  But when they happen, I’ll give you the bad news frankly, honestly and openly.”

He got out in front of a problem and with honesty; candor and caring managed to disarm what for many might be a fatal business error.

I remember some time ago when someone had to come and see me to tell me they had lost the source code on one of our systems.  It wasn’t a pleasant meeting.  It was a stupid mistake of massive proportions.  It shook my confidence in this person and their entire team.   But we left that meeting with a plan to recover and over time my confidence was rebuilt.  If he had delayed or hidden the problem, the outcome would have been much different.

Errors will happen.  They can consume you and you can let the adrenalin eat you up.  You can try to hide from them and let the fear consume you.   First deal with the panic.  Practice just objectively observing your physical reaction.  Over time, you’ll get better and better.

Next, deal with the situation by getting out in front of the bad news.  Learn to give bad news well.

Be open, be honest, be human.  Don’t run, hide or delay..  Tell it straight, don’t sugar coat it.    It’s only when you hold on to it, when you let it fester and brew that it will consume you.  Don’t give it that power.  Don’t live in fight or flight.  Stand up, acknowledge your fear and concern – observe it.  Then tell it like it is.

(Jim Love is CIO of IT World Canada)

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