Give me my money (again)

For some reason, a bout of nostalgia is causing me to revisit some of my old posts. I originally published this one in June 2011. Hope you enjoy this oldie-but-goodie.

Bound for yet another youth hostel at the end of a long spring break jaunt through Italy, a friend and I hurried to catch a subway train in Rome. (Obviously, the presence of the word “youth” indicates that this event occurred MANY years ago.) Caught up in the rush hour hustle-bustle, we scrambled to squeeze ourselves into a crowded-to-bursting train car. When the door closed on my backpack and then reopened, I tried to press myself deeper inside. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it past the man in front of me because we got caught up in that awkward dance of both moving the same way at the same time. We finally figured it out following a rapid-fire exchange of good-natured scusi/prego, and the train door closed.

A minute later, an older man pointed out the gaping zipper in my fanny pack (no comments, please!). You guessed it–my wallet was gone. Of course, being the enlightened world traveler that I was at the ripe age of 20, I quickly understood that the scusi-dance I had just experienced had been an intentional distraction. We hadn’t yet come to our first stop, so I knew my dance partner was still on the train and I easily drew a bead on him. As I suspected he would, this guy left the train as soon as the doors opened. Fearless and galvanized by my youth, I hopped off the train and jumped on his back, yelling over and over, “GIVE ME MY MONEY!”

To keep this long story from getting longer, I will simply tell you that during this excitement, I looked back at the train as it pulled away from the platform. Through the window I saw another man holding my wallet, rifling through its contents. I had nabbed the wrong guy.

Certainly, the guy I had in my clutches wasn’t innocent. He was part of a two-man team whose MO was for one to distract and the other to snatch. Even so, my actions were ill-directed and didn’t recover my money.

Now, you may be wondering how I’m going to turn this into some sort of communication insight. That’s easy. Particularly in times where you need to take corrective action or to give negative feedback, consider these lessons:

  1. Look before you leap, especially if you’re jumping someone’s back. (Literally, in some cases!)
  2. When you need to resolve a problem, make sure you have the right guy. (Misdirecting your anger won’t help anyone, and it could even backfire. I was lucky.)
  3. Be patient. (What I didn’t mention above was that there was another train coming five minutes after the one  into which I had crammed myself. The time I lost due to my haste and bravado was far more than the five minutes I would have waited for the next train. And I would still have had my money.)

I love to tell this story, and I’ve told it often. For the record, though, this is the first time that I’ve made the connections that now seem so obvious to me. There really is a lesson in everything.

Constructive criticism

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why people confuse dishonesty with politeness. Every single day, I see and hear these things happen around me.

If you don’t understand what I mean, think about a meeting or conversation you’ve been involved in when someone pitched an idea that someone else didn’t like. Chances are, instead of giving honest feedback—which can certainly be polite and respectful, by the way—the person who didn’t like it brushed it off with a lukewarm oh-that’s-an-interesting-idea response. Or worse yet, he pretended to like the idea and then left disappointed, never to implement it.

Everyone loses in that scenario. The person who made the proposal receives no guidance with respect to how to improve it, and the person to whom it was pitched remains empty handed—all under the guise of not wanting to offend the other party.

Here’s a specific example. I’m working on a project with a team of others to name a product line. After several brainstorming sessions, we presented some options. Initially, we received some thoughtful nods, but after weeks of silence following the meeting, we finally realized that we had missed the mark. Eventually a few detached comments filtered our way, but we were back to square one.

No one wants to deliver bad news, but we would have been a lot better off if someone had said, “Hey, I appreciate the effort, but I really don’t like this option. I had been hoping for something that more effectively conveyed [insert characteristic here].” My team would have been immediately able to regroup and attack the problem afresh, with the added benefit of better understanding the expectations. Instead, we sat and stewed, not knowing what went wrong, and I’ll bet the recipients also stewed a bit, questioning our capability—all because they thought they were being polite.

This misguided attempt at congeniality undermines productivity, and that frustrates me more than I can express. We’d all get a lot more done if we’d learn how to marry that revered politeness with honesty. Criticism isn’t a bad thing if it’s productive.