You might as well prepare for it now. At some point in your career, if it hasn’t happened already, you will put your foot in your mouth. You will say something rude or careless in a situation where it is completely inappropriate. Your manager and maybe even your manager’s manager will hear you. And you will have to decide what to do next.
For me it was in front of my manager and in front of my client’s very serious, very senior regulatory/legal review team. The review team had just completed what was essentially an eight-hour day of non-stop meetings. Out of pure kindness, and after some begging, they agreed to fit in a conference call with us at 6:00pm one evening to review our training video script. The video footage had already been shot, but we use the review team’s feedback to decide which clips would be included in the final edit. Because our call was after 5:30pm, my manager would be listening in from her car on mute as she picked up her kids, and I would lead the meeting.
Everything was going well, the senior reviewer was being a little short with us, but he was doing us a huge favor and I am sure he was more than ready to go home for the day. Then we got to a dialogue heavy portion of the script where he had a lot of questions. As he went word-for-word through a paragraph, I started to think about the fact that we wouldn’t be able to reshoot that paragraph and we also wouldn’t be able to realistically edit out individual words from the dialogue.
But rather than explaining that, or (better yet) keeping my mouth shut and dealing with it at the end of the call, I said something like, “Well, if you are going to nit pick that paragraph to death, maybe we’ll just cut it.” Yes, I called a very senior REGULATORY officer “nit picky.” This man had total carte blanche to cancel my project on the spot. There was dead silence for a very long minute, and then he actually laughed/coughed a little (probably out of shock), before proceeding to school me in why he was focused on that paragraph. I pressed the mute button on my phone and laid my head down on my desk to take my medicine.
Luck for me, my manager was a rock star. She came in the next morning, stepped into my office before she even took her coat off, and said, “Let’s talk about why that’s not the thing to say to Regulatory.”
In the future, I may not get off as easy. Jessica Taylor at TheMuse.com did a fantastic post about ways to recover after you have said something you shouldn’t have said. Here is a quick summary of her thoughts:
- Be honest and own up to what you said. Feely admit that you were out of line and you will do better in the future. No excuses, whining, or “re-writing” of the conversation.
- Get third party validation. Was a colleague in the room when you said it? What does he or she think about the interaction? This was key for me in the example above. My manager heard the whole thing, knew I was out of line, and was able to advise me on next steps. I would not have been able to clearly assess the situation or determine the appropriate response on my own.
- Deal with it right away. When you walk away from an unfortunate interaction, reflect on it immediately. Do not try to forget about it until you know what happened, why it happened, and what to do next.
- Then move on. After you have dealt with the situation, it is time to move on. It is uncomfortable for everyone involved if you turn what was a quick rainstorm into a month-long monsoon. Instead, focus on making things better by being the best professional you can be.
I will be saving Taylor’s advice for the next time I say something stupid. Because there will be a next time – I just hope it is a long, long way away.