31- Solicit advice, but make your own decisions
As a child, you were probably taught at a young age to respect your elders. This family value is prevalent in many cultures. As you aged, you learned life lessons from those who were older. Some of these teachings were life skills; perhaps your grandfather taught you how to bake, or your mother taught you how to fix a flat tire. Other training involved learning by experience. Think back to when you were a young child. Your father told you not to touch the hot stove. However, you did. If you did it by accident or on purpose, the result is the same: a burned hand. This experience taught you two lessons: 1) touching a hot stove will result in a burn, and 2) your father was right. A series of these types of events continue to happen daily while we are growing up. We learn about living as our elders share direction and insight based on their life experiences. Along the way, we come to assume that our elders are wiser and know what is best for us.
However, everyone has had different experiences throughout their lives, positive and negative, which influence them when making decisions. In addition, each person’s experiences can also be used to develop or reinforce their own personal bias. It is important to recognize that more experience doesn’t always translate to better decisions.
Have you ever been to a small town parade? When I was 8 years old, my cousin and I planned a family float for the parade in honor of our grandfather. There were 21 grandchildren all in the back of a pickup truck. We wore white tee-shirts and blue jeans. Our painted signs hung from the sides of the truck and we were proud of our accomplishment. A few weeks after the parade, trophies were awarded for various categories. It was announced in the local newspaper that our float won first place in the family category. When my aunt arrived to pick up the trophy she was informed that someone else had already picked it up. Within an hour, various family phones were ringing. Everyone was looking for the missing trophy. Because I had helped in planning and executing the float, I was accused of taking it. The trophy was still missing a week later when my grandmother, who is unrelated to the family featured on the float, handed it to me one night after dinner. She said she had picked up the trophy because she wanted me to have it because she had seen me put so much work into the float. She also said that if the trophy went home with my aunt it would stay at her house and I would never see it again, and that later in life it would hold meaning for me. I felt shocked and betrayed. In my hands was the trophy I had been accused of stealing. Although I hadn’t been the person who took the trophy, and didn’t have any knowledge of its whereabouts until just then, I felt ashamed. My grandmother assured me that I had earned the trophy and told me to keep it safe and not tell anyone that I had it. I hid it in my backpack when my dad picked me up and later moved it to the safest hiding place I knew, under folded clothes in my dresser drawer. The phone kept ringing and with every call, my conscious was more divided. The goal of the float was to unite the family, not to win a trophy. I was proud of helping to accomplish that goal, and I wanted to share that feeling with the rest of my family. However, I also knew my grandmother was right, and if I told the family that I had the trophy they would take it. Also, my limited past experience was that when my grandmother told me to do (or not do) something, she was correct. So I kept the trophy hidden a few more days. This poor decision continued to weigh on me, as did my confusion. Each night I would go to sleep wondering why my grandmother directed me to keep the trophy secret. Eventually, I came to accept that my grandmother had led me down a path I didn’t want to be on. The realization that just because she was older, she wasn’t always right, was almost as frightening as facing my cousins when I returned the trophy.
Having just read the parade/trophy story you probably think that I learned the lesson at a young age to question my elders when their advice doesn’t feel like the “right thing to do.” However, early in my career I found myself falling into the same mindset. As an entry-level engineer, I was working on a large project with a client I often advised technically. I went to my boss and asked for guidance when an issue developed in trying to win a proposal with the client. During the discussion, he said that he believed our competitor was providing a technically incorrect solution and that we should alert the client to the issue. He wrote an email to explain the concern and asked me to send it to the client. Although I didn’t have as much experience as him, I wasn’t sure that the details provided in the email were correct. However, I didn’t want to appear ignorant or upset my boss, so I sent the email to the client. Later that week I researched the issue and discussed it with a senior engineer outside of our company. As I feared, I learned that the details sent from my e-mail address were faulty. When I called the client to explain that I had misinterpreted the information and apologize for sending an email that was not well thought out, he informed me that they had already awarded the project to our competitor. The original email with incorrect information did not deter them from awarding the project to our competitor, and I had tarnished my reputation as this client’s trusted advisor.
The notion that people with more life experience make better decisions and have the correct answers is reinforced throughout our lives. This is evident in family situations, sports teams, classrooms, and in the office. However, just because someone has more experience, it does not mean they are correct or know what decision is best for you or your situation. It can be difficult to retrain yourself to think differently. To start, if you find yourself questioning the direction or advice of someone with more experienced than you, use these tips to decide which path you will take.
Question the advice you are receiving and where the advice is coming from. Does the person offering wisdom have experience in the area they are referring you in? Do you know if those experiences have been positive or negative? Is the advice you are receiving being given with your best interest in the forefront? One question you can ask yourself is, “If I follow this advice and a reporter captures the story in the newspaper, will I be proud when the world reads it?” If you aren’t sure that you, or your readers, will like the article, get a second opinion. The person giving advice may genuinely believe they are providing good direction. However, everyone has pre-conceived notions of how things should be done and it is important to recognize that more experienced people make mistakes just like less experienced people.
If the path you are taking leaves feels uncomfortable, seek out another opinion. This second set of ears could be a peer in a different industry, a family member, or another co-worker. Explain the situation and solicit their advice and opinion.
If soliciting feedback from another person isn’t productive, delay executing on the advice until you are comfortable with the potential consequences. This can be a very difficult thing to do. In many work-related circumstances, a colleague will be waiting for you to make a decision before they can move forward. However, if you take action because you are in a hurry, and not because you believe it is the right action to take, you and your colleague may regret it later. For example, if the action involves sending an e-mail, draft it and wait until you can get feedback regarding the issue from someone you trust. Once you have feedback, you will be able to send, delete, or edit the email.
Don’t compromise your integrity and values. A single poor decision can have far-reaching effects. At the end of the day, it is your reputation on the line and no one is more concerned about your reputation than you are. You will interact with thousands of people throughout your career. If you maintain a positive reputation people will not only respect you, they will want to work with you and recommend you to others in their circle. One way you can protect your reputation is to use your intuition and do a “gut check” before executing. The professor from my engineering ethics course said that you should listen to your gut when making decisions and that you would know if you made a bad decision if, when you sit down for a beer after work it tastes bad. When I make a good decision, the beer tastes delicious. In contrast, each time I have followed someone else’s poor direction or made my own poor choice, it tastes terrible.
Lastly, don’t compound bad decisions. If you make a mistake, even if it is because you listened to someone else, admit it, take responsibility for it, and find a way to make amends. It is easy to allow poor decisions to escalate, or to blame your actions on others. You will be respected more, however, if you admit your mistakes and make changes accordingly. Consider Tom’s story. Tom is an estimator for a drywall subcontractor. Shortly after submitting a proposal to a very good client he realizes that he grossly underestimated the installation cost and schedule. Because Tom is afraid of looking bad in front of his client and his team and of not winning the project, he decides to keep quiet. The client uses Tom’s proposal and builds a project budget and schedule. Several weeks go by and the client calls Tom to confirm that his team has availability to work on the project. Tom, excited to “close the deal,” confirms that his company can do the work. He knows that his original bid is bogus, but figures that he can cut a few things from the project to “make the numbers work.” Tom’s company signs a contract and begins the work. Shortly into the project it is clear to the client that the installation deadline is not going to be met. At the same time, Tom’s team realizes that they are not charging a high enough fee to cover the client’s scope. The result is the client is displeased because the project is completed late and Tom’s company loses money on their work. By not calling immediately to modify or withdrawal his proposal, Tom started a chain reaction of poor decisions that ended with his company losing money on the project and, more importantly, future opportunities with a good client. Tom is an example of what not to do. When you realize you made a mistake or a poor choice, begin working to remedy it immediately. Your character is defined by the ability to identify, and recover from, poor choices instead of allowing them to compound. In fact, recognizing poor choices and fixing them is often more important than making good choices.
My grandmother was right when she said that the trophy would be meaningful later in life. To me, that trophy doesn’t represent my family’s award winning parade float, it symbolizes the importance of making my own decisions, rather than blindly following someone else’s advice. I haven’t seen that trophy in almost 30 years. However, each time I find myself making a decision that I am not sure is a good one, I think of that trophy.
What tips do you have for vetting advice and making your own decisions?