I Am Not As Perfect As You Are

Yesterday in a meeting at work, a junior staffer found two things that I said that were slightly wrong (or could have been said more precisely), and he wasted no time to jump in and correct me. Publicly. Loudly. Whiney-ly. Unprofessionally. With several people senior to me in the room.

The first time he did that, I just said, “oh well, you all know that’s what I meant,” and moved on. But the second time he did that, as I do not have a poker face, my face got red and I got hot. I said…

…”well, sorry, I am not nearly as perfect as you are. Why don’t you just continue this presentation and I’ll step back.”

There was uncomfortable silence in the room. I hate it when that happens.

After a minute (which seemed much longer), the junior staffer said, “sorry, you know that I pride myself in being accurate.”

Rather than allow the discussion to go on a tangent, I just said, “we’ll talk later. Now… as I was saying…” and finished my presentation and the meeting. Senior staff thanked me for sharing information from my field of expertise. Meeting ended.

I returned to my desk and got busy. This is a very busy time of year for me, and I barely have 10 minutes for lunch at my desk, much less anything else (like replying to personal email — sorry WC.)

But that junior staffer is like a dog with a bone… he won’t give up. He entered my office and wanted to explain his comments and why he was right.

I had enough.

I just looked at him with an icy expression on my face and said once again, “I am really sorry that I am not as perfect as you are.”

He got defensive and started explaining again why he felt it was important to interject the way that he did.

I did not have time to listen to his defense again and again. I just said, “look, I’m busy. I have (this-and-that) to do by (such-and-such tight deadline), and you’re not qualified or authorized to do it. All I can say is that you might want to think tonight about methods to let people know when they said something that you thought was inaccurate. Ask around — you have the reputation among many of us for always having to correct us regardless of the reason, rank, or content. You have alienated a lot of people. Have you noticed that you are invited to fewer meetings than you have been before? There are consequences of every action. Think about it and let’s talk tomorrow after we sleep on it tonight.” Then I dismissed him from my office and shut the door. I really was busy and didn’t have time to discuss it further.

Man, back in the day when I was about this junior staffer’s age and rank, I also had to be right. I had to be accurate and make sure that everyone around me was just as precise in their communications. All the time. In every meeting. I remember one time overhearing someone on the phone in his office say something I thought was wrong, and I boldly went in there to correct him — while he was on speakerphone with the CEO of the organization!

After all, I knew everything better than anyone else. I had studied, earned my degrees, took additional training, read books and professional articles. I knew what I was talking about! Why didn’t “they” know that and recognize me for having the depth of comprehension that I had about everything? Everything.

I learned as I got older and more mature just how immature I had behaved. Without realizing it, I had burned bridges. People were avoiding me. I also was not invited to meetings like is happening now to Mr. Junior.

This morning when I checked my work email at home before coming to the office, I found a long, long email from Mr. Junior sent at 2am, saying that he could not sleep and essentially apologized (in a rambling, somewhat defensive way) for his behavior with a promise, “I’ll do better.” Yeah, time will tell.

Rather than beat him up when I see him next, I will share my story above about when I always had to be right and how that behavior held me back. When you don’t get invited to meetings and when you develop a reputation of being uptight and difficult, you are considered “not to be a team player” and your chances of promotion are reduced. I really had to work hard to change my behavior and rebuild bridges that I burned. I became accustomed to the newly acquired taste of eating crow.

What I did to change my behavior was ask two others in the office to let me know as soon as they spotted any of my behavior of that nature. We actually worked out hand-signals in case we were in a meeting. At the end of every work day, I would stop by my trusted peers’ desks to ask for their review of my behavior. Every day — that was hard! No one wants to hear comments about things they do that others perceive as unprofessional, rude, or arrogant.

After about two months of being corrected and advised by these two trusted peers, I eventually learned that you do not always have to be exactly right. Sometimes people misspeak, but their intent is clear. I learned the hard way how to “let it go.” And I also learned to relax and smile more often. I was surprised to learn that sometimes a positive personality and a smile can win more support than being known for being right. Who woulda thunk?

Within a year of intense focus on changing my own behavior, I was reviewed for promotion and got it. I was told when I was given the promotion and assigned to a new boss that I would not have gotten that promotion had I been the guy I was a year ago. People senior to me all noticed and they talked about me. Lesson learned. (BTW, within a year, I also helped my two trusted peers and they also eventually won promotion. In fact, today, one of them is a Vice President of the organization. Way to go!)

Life is short: you do not always have to be perfect.

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