People sometimes irrationally lash out when they fear that they’ll be embarrassed. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert suggests that it’s best to weather people’s outbursts and move on without taking umbrage.
When I was eighteen, I saved a man’s life. He didn’t appreciate it.
It happened on a dull summer evening in Wichita, Kansas. I had recently come back home from university on a holiday weekend. A few weeks before, I’d graduated from the Combat Medical Specialist course at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. As soon as that course ended, I’d started university. This particular weekend was my first time back home in several months and I was catching up with a mate of mine over dinner at our local Pizza Hut.
If you’re under a certain age, you may not realize that the Pizza Hut chain used to be dine-in and takeaway only. They looked down on that idea of delivering their food for many, many years. Back in the 1980s, you had to drive to one of their dine-in restaurants, place an order, and wait for a half-hour or more for your premium-priced pie to be brought to your table. You could then either drive it home or eat in… which is what they wanted, since eat-in guests would increase their profits by purchasing high-margin drinks.
That’s why my mate and I were lounging in an actual Pizza Hut restaurant on a blistering summer evening. I was sharing stories about my experiences at FSH, and my mate was relating how he planned to go into the Foreign Service after he graduated. Thanks to the Army, I’d effectively missed out on the entire summer after high school graduation and was interested in hearing what all our classmates were getting up to.
Besides the two of us blokes, there were only two other customers in the place: a man and woman who appeared to be in their early 50s. I’d assumed that they were married, because they seemed lost in their own thoughts, saying very little. We didn’t hear anything from their side of the dining room up until about midway through our meal when the male half of the couple started choking on his dinner. I heard the man’s initial ‘hork!’ and had turned to look right at him at the same time that his companion started shouting for help. I didn’t see any restaurant staff members in the dining room, so I popped up and raced over to the fellow.
The man couldn’t have been without air for more than thirty seconds. I grabbed him by his shoulders and stood him up so that I could get behind him (exactly as we’d practised it in medic school) and started giving the fellow a series of whacks between the shoulder blades in order to dislodge his blockage.
As soon as I landed the first blow, the agitated woman opposite us in the booth shrieked at me ‘YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG!’
I calmly replied (while carrying on with my resounding smacks) that the Army had trained me how to do it and carried on, planning out how I’d shift from administering back-blows to giving abdominal thrusts if my first attempt didn’t clear the victim’s airway. As it turned out, my fourth whack on the man’s back did the trick and forced an overly-large globule of pizza out of the fellow’s oesophagus. The man immediately started breathing again. I stepped back, allowing the fellow to ease himself back onto his bench… He didn’t so much as nod in acknowledgement. The lady, though, glared at me as if I’d deliberately engineered the entire choking event to somehow make her look bad. I went back to my own dinner feeling mildly perplexed.
The rest of the evening was bizarrely strained. The man never said a word to us (I’d have thought that a simple ‘thank you’ was warranted). The woman frequently looked over and glared at me malevolently. The restaurant manager dropped by our table for a few minutes and hinted that they totally would have handled the situation on their own had I not gotten to the victim before they could, as if that was a affront to the pizza cooks. I was mystified, because everyone seemed downright resentful about how things had worked out.
After another fifteen minutes of everyone’s silliness, my mate and I decided that the world was crazy. We paid our bill and left. I didn’t think much about the incident.
I’ve never forgotten that harpy’s screech, though. At the time, it struck me that she was probably just manifesting an extreme stress reaction. Finding herself in a life-or-death situation surprised the hell out of her. She didn’t know how to fix the problem herself, but she’d probably seen similar scenes on the telly. When the ‘helpful stranger’ didn’t act the way she remembered characters acting on the telly, she blurted out something that she probably meant to be helpful, like, ‘Abdominal thrusts might be more effective!’ When the mortal terror phase of the episode was over, the lady was probably so overcome with (a) relief that her partner was okay, and (b) embarrassment for having blurted out something silly, that she displaced all of her fear and embarrassment onto me instead of apologizing. That was my theory at any rate, so I let it go.
Still, the woman’s angry words stuck with me. It’s been a quarter century since that strange little dinner scene, and I’ve encountered variations on that phrase many,many times over the years – in business setting, especially.
I understand why people (like the angry Pizza Hut lady) might spout some accusatory nonsense out of fear and ignorance. More often, though, that phrase seems to be a reflexive utterance that people make whenever they feel that they’re about to be embarrassed in front of their peers. It’s a way of pre-emptively shifting the crowd’s disapproval from one’s self to whomever might be making them look bad. When applied in that fashion, the statement is inherently and irredeemably disingenuous. Insulting, too. I’d also argue that it’s unprofessional, immature, and irritating. It is, however, perfectly human.
I think that’s why people are often primed to react negatively to any variation on the phrase ‘you’re doing it wrong’. It’s used inappropriately so often that it’s always received as a baseless personal attack rather than as a simple observation… Even when it’s said as an emotionally-neutral statement of fact.
That’s a significant problem in the business world, especially for us cyber security professionals. A very large element of our jobs is to inform people when their work habits or decisions may be counter-productive to the integrity and defence of our systems and networks. That’s why us security folks tend to accrue a terrible reputation inside most companies – because we tend to come across as negative or oppositional, the security department gets perceived as an obstacle rather than as a critical asset. We’re the guys that always say ‘no’ to the other departments’ initiatives. Eventually, resentment builds and aggravated managers start to ignore us– operating outside of the established security protocols in order to pursue their projects with no security oversight. Mayhem often ensues.
That’s as much our fault as it is anyone’s. Given our role as an advisory service, we can’t just thwart people and call it a day. We have to build relationships with the key stakeholders in the different lines of business so that people will be inclined to trust our professional judgmentbefore we start to comment on their projects’ shortfalls. ‘Credibility’ must be our watchword, or else we’ll always find ourselves pointlessly fighting our own people.
I recently spent several weeks having exactly this discussion with the IT Security lead at a local manufacturing company. The security bloke – we’ll call him ‘Bob’ – realized that he and his team weren’t winning the hearts and minds of the various department heads in their company, and felt (quite rightly) that this was limiting their effectiveness. I advised Bob that he and his team needed to start marketing their function – I suggested that they needed to ‘push’ information out to their stakeholders explaining why and how the security team was protecting the entire company. They needed to craft a sympathetic narrative, and then tell it over and over to their internal audience. That meant getting out of the bullpen and onto the pitch (so to speak), interacting with their customers where their customers lived. I told Bob that he needed to learn about people’s needs and frustrations so that he and his security boffins could demonstrate some genuine empathy for the people that they were expected to support. They needed, I said, to insinuate themselves into the other teams’ operations so that Bob and his lads could build a reputation that had more in common with ‘cheerful assistance’ than ‘cold and distant opposition’.
Bob and his director (we’ll call him Bobby) told me that they agreed with everything I’d said. They both told me that they were enthusiastic about implementing many of the internal reforms that I’d suggested. In many ways, I think that they showed great professional maturity. Unfortunately, our negotiations over a potential consultation broke down when it came time to translate what they knew they needed to do with how they were gong to go about it. In the end, both Bob and Bobby walked away from the table before we got to actually do anything together.
For just a moment in our final call, I considered pointing out that their suggested approach was a very bad idea. In essence, I’d be saying ‘you’re doing it wrong’ out of concern for the effectiveness of their stated methodology. I really wanted to help them because they were such decent folks, and I felt sure that we could make a significant positive difference together.
I quickly dismissed that thought, though. Yes, I felt frustrated that I wasn’t going to get the chance to help. That’s the consulting business, though. In this case, the client clearly wasn’t foolish; he just had different priorities and resource valuations than I did, and came to a different conclusion. I’d come to respect Bob through our interactions over the course of many phone calls, and felt confident that he had a decent lock on how to fix his team’s problems over the long term. Yes, I’m pretty sure that my proposed reforms would probably have worked out better for him and his, but I have to remember that Bob knows his institution best. I may think that I have a better way to do things, but Bob’s not exactly ‘doing it wrong’. He’s just going about his reforms in a different fashion than I would… and that’s okay.
I don’t want to ever wind up like the bitter old woman in the Pizza Hut: seething over perceived slights, allowing embarrassment to fester, and lashing out at people in a fit of spite. It’s much healthier, I think, to simply treat people decently, respect their positions, and not take offense when they decline my offer of help. No one is obligated to take good advice, and no one is required to be grateful for assistance rendered (certainly not if they’re having to pay for it!). Should they? I’d love to say ‘sure’, but it can’t be mandatory. That’s why I ended my last conversation with Bob with an invitation to call me anytime if he ever changes his mind. If he decides later that he wants my help, I’ll be happy to pick things up where we left off.
That’s also why I’d still go help a choking stranger. The potential for reward or even gratitude should never enter into a decision as to whether or not to save a life. Do it because it’s the morally right thing to do, and then move on.
As for those not-life-or-death conflicts in the workplace, if a client doesn’t want your advice or assistance, then be a mature adult and leave it be. It’s far more productive to go find another client than it is to act like a twit.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.