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Avoiding the Ostrich Effect: Building Credibility Through Hard Conversations

by Anthony Carrillo on March 30, 2017

9 minute read

In business and life, there are frequently times where we eagerly agree to things with the best of intentions and utmost optimism. We don’t want to disappoint people–so we say things like “No problem, I’ll be there”, “Sure, we can do that.” or even “Yes honey, of course, I will.” But the impact of not following through on your commitments, even if it is out of your control, is one sure-fire way to eventually lose credibility with those around you and (if it’s serious enough) downright piss people off.

I guarantee that there will be times in your life when you won’t be able to oblige the commitments you have made and in most cases, it’s not because you’re going around purposely snubbing people. Sometimes, you learn early on that you won’t be able to do what you said you were going to do…other times, you find out at some other point within the spectrum of commitment and delivery. Regardless of when you find out, there is a moment in time when you know that the other person just isn’t going to get what you promised. And it is how you choose to respond in these moments, I would argue, that the most powerful opportunities for relationship building present themselves. There have been many times when I have had tough conversations that proved to be professionally and personally beneficial over the long term, even if those benefits were not immediately apparent to me at the time. Here’s a chapter from my life in business that might help some young ostrich out there (this analogy will make more sense in a minute):

It’s happened to all of us: We engage with a prospect or customer, expending significant chunks of time and energy with them, investing ourselves heavily in solving their problems and working absolute miracles. With the finish line in sight, everyone is all but celebrating, ready to bust out the champagne (In Texas we drink good bourbon but we’ll forgive the rest of y’all)…and then BAM, you’re blindsided by a roadblock. When it hits, it slams a steel wrench into the gears of everyone’s hard work.

Maybe you have seen this happen before. Across industries and roles, you might notice that human nature looks to fill your head with thoughts of the worst case scenarios and we’ve all been at that place where your internal worry-wart takes over:

  • In a Sales Role: “This could delay or even potentially kill this deal for me and I have to hit my number this month/quarter/year. I’ll wait until the right moment to say something.”
  • In an Operations/Delivery Role: “If I let this news go now, it will delay or derail the timeline and budget guidelines I have in front of me. I’ll wait until the time is right.”
  • In a Client Success/Support Role: “If I’m the one who delivers this news, I’m going to get blamed and possibly lose this deal/customer. I’ll wait until the timing is better.”

And it’s in this process of waiting for the “right time” that we magically transform into ostriches…shoving our heads deep into the sand and pretending that everything is ok. It’s something that I’ve been guilty of several times over (as an employee, as a business owner, and everything in between). Because my role now entails some element of each one of these role-based perspectives, I can relate to all three fears. When I was younger and greener, my immediate reaction was to shovel positivity at the problem and hope it went away – I became the infamous ostrich with my head in the proverbial sand…a lot. I learned the hard way that when I would finally come up for air, not only was the problem still there; but it had time to grow, become sticky, and collect more ancillary problems. So not only had I been expending tremendous amounts of energy stressing out about the potential worst-case scenarios (which, by the way, are almost never as bad as you imagine them) but by the time the news was finally delivered, the customer is anywhere from annoyed to smoke-blowing-out-of-their-ears-mad. And who could blame them? Most of the time, people are not upset at bad news itself…they are upset because they weren’t given enough time/information necessary to make a decision about said bad news.

There have been countless occasions that I have been grateful that I didn’t take the easy way out. I’ll give you one quick but specific story that is fresh in my mind:

We do custom software development. My team was about 1/3 of the way into a small dev project when my forward thinking, software engineering wizards uncovered some key elements that my client hadn’t thought through all the way during our scoping and discovery sessions. There were a few very important details that we found out mid-design session that significantly impacted the breadth and scope of the work…in fact, said client had plum forgot about one piece altogether! Because my team was going full speed, and because delivering this news could have potentially derailed the whole engagement, there was some apprehension around how to deliver the narrative. But I’ve taken enough projects to the goal line to know that you give it to them clearly, honestly, and as soon as you find out. So we did.

We told them that the additional piece we uncovered had increased the project total budget by about 40%, but that we were grinding to a halt to let them know right now…while we were still only 1/3 of the way into it…in an effort to offer them full control over how they wanted to move forward (even if that meant risking my bottom line to do it.) They realized that the one piece they overlooked completely (feature “x”) was far more important than another one that was in their Phase I roadmap (feature “y”). They ultimately chose to execute feature-x now and move feature-y into their Phase II project plans, keeping their spend for this initial project in line. They were very grateful that my team had the flexibility to pivot mid-project and that we were protecting their best interest/long term goals along the way. More importantly, they were happy that they had the ability to make the decision about how to move forward for themselves instead of waiting until it was too late. In hindsight, it’s easy to see that we made the right call as it could have turned out very differently and left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth if we had gone the way of the ostrich “waiting for the right time.”

Over time, I’ve learned that while difficult, setting clear expectations is of significant benefit…at least eventually. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out in unicorns and roses…in fact, sometimes you’re detonating a grenade to avoid an atomic bomb. But in most cases, even if people don’t like the news you’re delivering…you will ultimately earn their respect and, more importantly, their trust. You build credibility through honesty – and your customer is appreciative that you are forthcoming with them.

This also rings true in other aspects of life: Your wife isn’t mad that you stayed out all night, she’s mad that you didn’t tell her and she fell asleep on the couch waiting for you. Your friends aren’t steamed that you couldn’t make the potluck, they’re irked that you didn’t give them enough time to get someone else to bring forks and plates. Your dad isn’t ticked that your car broke down, he’s upset that the check engine light has been on for 3 months and now he’s trying to fix the damn thing in the humid Texas summer.

Something I’m finding to be a universal truth as I learn and grow – the harder the conversation seems…the more important it probably is for you to have it. With that in mind, I challenge any fellow ostriches to pull your head out of the sand more often – you’ll be amazed at how human it actually makes you feel.

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You can read Anthony’s original post on LinkedIn by clicking here.