On my short list of professional competitive differentiators, I would list my inbox strategy. I have a zero tolerance policy for unread mails. Zero. Any mail, however big or small, which lands in my inbox, is instantly read. There is an industrial strength set of mail filters that move mailing list noise out of the way, and yes, that means I ignore a good portion of my incoming mail, but most mail addressed directly to me is consistently and expediently read.
There are other inbox strategies I employ to figure out when and how I respond, too, but I admit the combination of these strategies is not foolproof. I read mails and never respond, despite having good intentions to do so. I passively aggressively ignore mails I just don’t want to answer, and sometimes I just forget to respond. I have a carefully constructed excuse when I’m called on these mail transgressions. It’s a standard preface in all emails and phone conversations where there needs to be an acknowledgement of neglect and it’s…
“Sorry, I’ve been swamped…”
This isn’t a lie; it’s an excuse.
Now, there is a bit of pride in that I have a life where I’m scrambling. Yes, I’m proud that I’m busy. I’m a happy member of the busy club because I’ve been to the bored club meetings and, well, they’re boring.
The pride vanishes in the guilt that there was neglect. I forget to respond, I fucked up in some manner, and here I am with my standard disclaimer: “swamped”. The guilt is the emotion that lingers. I just checked my Sent box of 20,483 messages and found the word swamped 712 times… in the last year. How unoriginal and pathetic.
And then I remember the worst part. It’s pathetic because when I use the excuse that I’m swamped, I’m telling you absolutely nothing.
I had a boss — we’ll call him The Leaper for reasons you’ll understand in a moment. The Leaper was a bright guy, a worthy mentor, politically savvy, and generally a person who would look out for his team. The Leaper had a lot of responsibility as VP, so his management strategy was to randomly sample his teams looking for — you guessed it — places to leap.
The Leaper’s skill lay in his ability to detect bullshit. Being bright, a former engineer, and familiar with the problem space, he could tell when he was being spun. He knew when he was hearing less than the truth. Generally he was understanding when he sampled ambiguity, but there was one sure way to get him to leap: answer a question with an excuse.
The Leaper attacked excuses as a personal affront. He wouldn’t let anyone leave the room until it was painfully clear that the excuse card had been played, that it was unacceptable, and that the proper steps were taken to make sure it would never happen again.
For first time excusers, it was a painful perspective adjustment. See, when The Leaper asked a question where the answerer wasn’t comfortable answering, they did what I did when I ignored a mail — they made an excuse. It’s a knee-jerk reaction with seemingly little consequence, but that’s not what The Leaper saw. He saw the lame diffusion of blame and a weak defense.
An excuse is an abdication of responsibility. There are no healthy excuses. I’ll explain.
“But Rands, it’s really Antonio’s fault! He owns the deliverable, he missed the date, it’s his fuck-up.” Calm down. You’re arguing about the wrong part of the excuse.
An excuse has two parts: the content and the delivery. Your Antonio content may be spot on, but the reason The Leaper is going to leap on you is your delivery. It sounds like you’re diffusing, it sounds like you’re spinning. You’re not delivering the facts, you’re delivering emotion and weak opinion. The best data in the world is useless if your means of conveyance is suspect.
Yes, with confidence, you can deliver weak content and not trigger a leap, but this only delays the inevitable. Your chutzpah may disguise the content, but since your content is weak and you don’t actually know what you’re talking about, you’re eventually going to take the reputation hit… twice. First, when the crap content is discovered and then again when everyone realizes you were pitching your facts on false confidence.
Well done there.
The irony is thick. In order to avoid looking like you didn’t know what you were talking about, you opened your mouth and only added to the confusion. If you told The Leaper, “I don’t know, but I will know tomorrow,” he’d be cool.
Life in a big or small company is an information game where you are judged by the amount and accuracy of your information. This game becomes more complex as you leave the individual contributor role for management, but even as an individual, you are expected to be aware of your surroundings and able to describe them to others.
I know that feeling when someone in authority spends 30 seconds looking at something you’ve been working on for six months and immediately finds a painfully obvious flaw. The mental conversation starts with, “There’s no way he could…” and it finishes with “Holy crap, how could I miss that?” It’s disorientating, and when the question is asked of you: “Why didn’t you think of that?” I know where the excuse comes from. It’s alarmed spin, it’s poor marketing, it’s the uncomfortable admission of guilt.
So, what are you going to do? Clearly, there’s a reputation hit here, so what’s the right move?
My advice is to take a small amount of time to say something real. Honest, clear, and brief. Sure, these are executives and they might be pissed, but the last thing to do in that scenario is to add fuel to the fire by actively demonstrating your discomfort.
There are executives who like to see you squirm, who revel in the discovery of flaws. While they might be right, this does not give them the right to be cruel. I’m talking about that deliberate dead silence after the flaw has been exposed, and everyone sees it now and everyone is wondering, “How could we miss that?” In that moment, someone is expected to say something. This is your opportunity to say something of value.
An Opportunity to Communicate
Working for The Leaper for years, I can now sense the moment before I’m about to employ an excuse. I can feel the chain of events that are about to occur as I construct my weak redirection of responsibility. I hear what I’m about to say in my head — It’s not my fault — and then I stop.
I want you think of the very last conversation you had and I want you to think of one thing that you did not say. Maybe you were in a hurry and you blew off someone’s question. Maybe you were in a great conversation. Perhaps you were talking to your Dad. What is the topic you should have brought up? What is the small thing you could have said to make that conversation more valuable?
This is everything that crosses my mind after I stop with the excuse. I think about all the throw-away phrases I use where I could have actually said something valuable. I once wrote, “Every time you say blah blah blah, a creative writing teacher dies,” and I meant it. Each time you open your mouth, you have an opportunity to build something. That’s the perspective you want during the uncomfortable dead silence, not the victim-based emotion of excuse.
I’m in a hurry, but being in a hurry isn’t an excuse for not taking a small amount of time to say something real.