Wednesday, March 14, 2007

How To Stay Out of Trouble

This week it's Alberto Gonzales and his juvenile assistant Kyle Sampson, and Peter Pace. Gonzales & Co. caught in another web of lies to congress, Pace adding "Chief Morality Arbitor" to his role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The hapless Sampson is history, Gonzales and Pace are under fire. The events of this week almost prompted me to write a sequel to my "You Are Who You Hire" post of last week, but that would be just more of the same sad story - Bush just can't resist hiring sub-standard people who will get him in trouble.

And speaking of trouble, it's a good thing to stay out of. An important question for politicians, managers, and individuals is, "How do I stay out of trouble?" If we have a good answer to this question, our lives and our jobs will certainly be more pleasant.

But before we can answer this question we need to understand what "trouble" is. Trouble is what happens when a non-trivial error of commission or omission becomes public. Criticism ensues. Explanations are demanded. Careers or relationships are at risk. Being in trouble is not fun. Before it's over, an episode of "trouble" usually results in the truth of the situation becoming known, for better or worse.

My experience has taught me that it's always best to react quickly and honestly to any sign of trouble. Get the exact facts of what happened. Understand why the act of commission or omission occurred. Communicate the truth, promptly and non-emotionally to all who have some power in the situation. Maybe this will involve "eating some crow". Maybe the facts will make the trouble go away. But timeliness and honesty always score points and, at the least, prevent the initial "trouble" from spawning another "trouble" concerning the disclosure process.

But those who have ever been in real "trouble" know it's best not to be there in the first place. So, here's the test that works best to keep one from getting in trouble in the first place. Ask "Would I feel comfortable having this conduct, or this research, or this decision, truthfully explained on the front page of the New York Times?" If you're not sure about the answer, don't do whatever it is. Restrain the action, do more research, re-consider the decision. Time almost always clarifies a potentially troublesome situation and permits the appropriate solution to rise out of the uncertainty.

Having said this, I can hear the cries of my readers: "Yeah, sure, always wait until you have perfect information and clarity, and you won't ever make a bad choice! Sorry, pal, but that just isn't the way the world works." And you are right. We all have to make choices based on incomplete information.

The way around this problem is to qualify choices at the time we make them. Admit potential information gaps and explain them at the time the choice is made. Let those who are affected by your choice understand your decision-making process prior to, or at least concurrent with, the action being taken. Get the concerns out at the earliest possible time, so that agreement or acquiescence or opposition will surface and clarify whatever the next steps should be. As someone once said, "Information is power". I say, "Providing information to others gives one power". Our penchant for providing incomplete information to others often results in our own failure to use pertinent information to determine our own actions. In other words, when we try to kid others we often kid ourselves as well. "Open kimona" is the best policy.

That's it. The secret to staying out of trouble is to assume that everything concerning an action will eventually come out. Once we understand that, we consider our decisions for as long as we can, we provide information that qualifies our choices, and we deal with fallout honestly and promptly with as little emotion as possible. Mr. Gonzales, does this make sense to you in light of this week's events? There's never a better time than the present to turn over a new leaf.

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