Three subtle strategies for correcting others’ screw-ups

Life presents many difficult situations, but few more difficult than the need to highlight someone else’s screw-up—actual or potential. Although identifying another person’s error is often the only way to correct it, many of us are so conflict avoidant as to ignore the issue completely. Unsuccessful car repair? Memo riddled with mistakes? Wrong color iPhone? Oh well…

Why so conflict avoidant? In part, because we think we have to mention the issue explicitly and fear the other side’s angry response. But the savviest among us know many subtle ways to highlight a screw-up without angering anyone at all. Just three such strategies that have made three accompanying situations in my own life more negotiable:

  1. Play dumb: We recently bought a fixer-upper and have had to do substantial fixing-upping, including a replacement of the heating unit. The company that did the replacement did good work, but we noticed one nettlesome issue: the master bedroom got a whole lot warmer than any other bedroom. No one was particularly eager to confront the owner of HVAC company, seeing as we liked him and otherwise appreciated his work. So we played dumb: “This is our first time replacing a heating unit; is it supposed to emit a lot more heat in the master than the other bedrooms?” Anyone could see that it wasn’t. But this innocent question offered an easier way of broaching the topic, and he responded by apologizing and adjusting a simple setting. So playing dumb can help, but only in cases like these when you trust the other party to offer an honest answer.
  2. Ask a related question: I recently took a work trip to Houston followed by a personal visit to my grandparents, who live in a suburb called The Woodlands. Having visited them before, I know the way to The Woodlands. Hence my alarm when the car service seemed to go in the opposite direction, as confirmed by the little blue dot on my iPad. It’s gonna be pretty uncomfortable for a visitor to ask a professional driver if he knows his way around his own town, I thought. So I asked a related question: “How long will it take us to get to The Woodlands from here?” “45 minutes,” he answered, “since this way isn’t as jammed as I-45.” Phew. Asking a related question certainly helped, though it did carry the risk of leaving the main question unanswered. What if he thought I was asking about The Woodlands out of idle curiosity, answering the question even while transporting me to Louisiana?
  3. Ask someone else: We have a favorite gastropub, which we visit as often as little ones allow. And we love the free biscuits dispensed before the meal. The only problem is that the biscuits don’t always arrive, sometimes because the server forgot. And it’s kind of uncomfortable to raise the possibility, particularly when interacting with the same server who’s served us a hundred times. So sometimes, while ordering in the presence of the server and the absence of the biscuits, I turn to my daughters and ask: “Do you want any biscuits today?” The answer, of course, is a resounding yes—and the server generally gets it. But there’s always the possibility that he won’t pay attention, the question being directed to someone else.

Bottom line: life occasionally requires us to address someone else’s goofs, actual or potential. But the prospect of implying that they goofed can petrify us into a state of frozen inaction. But it really doesn’t have to! Life also affords a variety of strategies for conveying our point implicitly. So don’t remain “frozen”—“let it go!”

A silver lining in other people’s failures?

Most of us spend most of our lives in organizations. And, whether we intend to or not, many of us start to identify with our organizations—they become a part of who we are. “I’m a professor at Johns Hopkins,” I might say. “I’m a manager at General Electric,” might you.

Having identified with our organization, it makes us uncomfortable when another member of our organization fails, especially if they fail big-time (e.g., by making a patently poor decision or public misstatement). Indeed, my recent research with coauthor Sun Young Kim shows that the failure of a colleague creates cognitive dissonance—a sense of discomfort about the inconsistency between the failed actor’s behavior and our own image as a member of the organization. But the research also reveals a step that could make our own lives more negotiable in the aftermath: working a bit harder. Here, I thought I’d tell you more about the finding and what it might mean for you.

First the finding: in three studies spanning a range of failures and individuals, we found that the failure of a colleague makes us uncomfortable on the colleague’s behalf. And since the colleague is a member of our own organization, it makes us uncomfortable with ourselves. To relieve the discomfort and reaffirm our own self-image, we work a bit harder at our own work task. In short, working harder seems to make people feel a bit better about a colleague’s failure.

So what does that mean for you? Well, first let me say what it doesn’t mean: it obviously doesn’t mean that you or your organization should encourage people to fail in hopes of stimulating other people’s effort. In the paper, we call that “patently unwise.” It doesn’t even mean that you should start seeing your organization’s failures in positive terms, as failures are obviously traumatic, and the associated additional effort will eventually burn everyone out.

But here’s what it might mean: if you see a colleague fail, you might be able to help yourself feel better by shifting your attention away from your identity as a member of the organization, and toward your own work task. By doubling down and trying harder, you may be able to remind yourself that you weren’t the source of the failure, potentially putting yourself on the fast-track once the organization recovers, or at least bolstering your resume for future opportunities.

And what if you lead an organization where someone fails? Well, you could choose to blame it on a bad apple and move on. Or you could choose to point out that the failure might’ve befallen anyone in the organization, and everyone should be on-guard to make sure it’s not them the next time. Our research suggests the latter might actually be more reparative by reminding people that they share an organizational identity with the person who failed. In addition to putting them on-guard, this approach may help them to work through their own psychological trauma more quickly. Obviously a recommendation to use in small doses, but still something to consider.

Failures are bad. Life immediately becomes less negotiable once one happens. But we might be able to make our own lives more negotiable by moving on, redoubling our own work efforts, and reviving our own self-regard.

Have you ever felt the need to work harder after someone else’s failure?