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When We Misread Cues and Get Things Wrong

We like to think we understand what’s going on. But sometimes we get things completely wrong.

Take a look at this very short video about how, even with the best intentions, our attempts to understand, please, and get things right can fall short — resulting in confusion, disappointment, and maybe even a little shock. Note the boy’s facial expressions.

We’ve all experienced the boy’s feeling of optimism suddenly turning to dread. Seeing this video reminded me of a troubling experience I had years ago when I misunderstood — and was misunderstood by — a prospective client.

Not as Expected

My meeting was with one of those old-line, direct-marketing catalog conglomerates. Given their reputation for tough business practices, I was surprised that they were interested in my overtly employee-focused, developmental stance. But the head of HR was tremendously enthusiastic about my approach to performance improvement, so I assumed that the company’s culture must have changed.

The meeting was only supposed to include the COO, CMO, and my HR buddy, so when I walked into the conference room, I was quite surprised to find half a dozen executives waiting for me, including the CFO. The CEO barreled in a few minutes later. I was by far the shortest person in the room, and the youngest. Notably, I was also the only woman. Good, I thought, they must really want to do this!

But instead of having the dialog I had expected, the CEO and CFO launched into a rapid-fire interrogation, accompanied by occasional salvos by the COO to show that any action was meant to happen on his turf.

Their questions focused on how much more revenue my methods would generate, and how fast. They had no stake in developing, engaging, or caring about their employees — not even in the interest of obtaining that extra revenue. They were seeking as idiot-proof and mechanistic a system as possible, and they talked about their staff as if they were idiots, or robots, not human beings.

The Wrong Support is Worse Than No Support

The HR director, my ally, was no help. In fact, he didn’t even speak. He only smiled at me, tensely, from time to time. I wondered if my presence was actually a way for him to show the executive team that he wasn’t the only one who cared about employees, that an outside “expert” did too. But I gradually realized that I had misread his earlier enthusiasm as a kind of assurance.

As the general sentiment in the room became more and more dismissive of what I believed to be humane business and management practices, I felt increasingly out of place. Eventually, the tone shifted to become dismissive of me too, albeit in a sort of jocular way.

After trying to find some basis for productive discussion, or at least to disagree without being disagreeable, I assessed that the discussion had swung from how and whether I could help them to what seemed like a bonding exercise for the group — at my expense, and to some extent, at the expense of the HR director. I felt sorry for him: He seemed trapped there. Luckily, I wasn’t.

The Conference Table Is Turned

Instead of continuing this unproductive exercise, I explained that I didn’t think we were a good match and that I didn’t believe we’d be comfortable working together. I thanked them for their time, and got up to leave. They surprised me again by being surprised themselves. They were used to shutting down the people who differed with them, not being cut short by them.

I had thought the HR director was clueing me in, like the sibling in the video, letting me know that things would be okay, but the reality was that his input didn’t actually add up. I’ve learned over the years to be cautious of situations in which a single executive wants to “partner” with me to change an entrenched culture — unless it’s the CEO — and even then, caution is necessary. But even in the midst of my confusion and discomfort, I got terrific value from the experience: It helped me learn how to walk away at the right time.

Onward and upward,

LK

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