Tuesday, May 15, 2012

An overused but empty phrase- “I told you so…”

There is an ample literature available on importance of failures and how they teach us to be better human beings provided we are willing to learn from them. The current corporate world that value perfectionism more greatly often makes learning from failures somewhat challenging. But i do believe that failing is an important part of growing. I wrote about failing faster as one of the good ways of failing a while back. Since then of course, i did experience failures and have tried to learn quite a bit from what i wrote and learned earlier.

While it is important as to how you deal with you failures, at the same time it is important to deal with the surrounding vibes that get generated when something doesn’t go as per the script. One of the oft-heard phrases i have experienced in such circumstances is a deferred piece of reinforcement called as "I told you so..." (only if you heard me on time).

Before i delve further into this topic, i wanted to share interesting story in the book-  The case of Bonsai Manager .  Here it goes-

Dave Kote used to work in GE during 1980s, when Jack Welch was "Neutron bombarding" the company. Dennis Dammerman had been appointed as a CFO in 1984 in succession to the very successful Tom Thorsen. Dammerman's mandate was to renew the finance function, which was rather set in its ways. Jack Welch balked at the wasteful bureaucratic procedures and the bloated number of data obsessed staff at the headquarters.

35 years old Dave Cote was at a relatively junior position, three levels below Dammerman. One of his tasks was to compile a detailed report of sales in every country in which GE operated- not for the current period- but the project sales for next 5 years. Dave enquired from his peers and immediate bosses on why this report was being prepared and to what use was it being put. The response he got did not provide him the clarity, but was accompanied by the request to carry on doing it. "While we have not used it in the past, we may in future", was the message. Dave was puzzled and did as was required.

One day in 1986, Dave received a phone call to meet Jack Welch. He became quite anxious and nervous on the prospect of meeting Jack. He entered Chairman's room, armed with every possible question that could be posed to a young financial analyst by an aggressive and colorful chairman.

"So, Dave, you look like a smart guy, why the hell do you ask our operating managers to forecast sales for next 5 years, and anyway what do you do with this data ?" thundered Welch.
"Well, that's a fair question", replied Dave tentatively, "I circulate it to the departments that plan for future strategies of the divisions and perhaps it facilitates the planning and allocation of resources."
The conversation continued in the predictable manner for a while longer and concluded with the Chairman saying, "I am going to get Dennis Dammerman here, and ask him why this kind of stuff is being done. How bloody wasteful!". Dave Cote was convinced that he was going to be fired.

Upon exit from the room, Dave Cote immediately contacted Dammermann to tip him off.Dammermann was quite calm about the whole thing, and seemed self-assured about how he would handle the matter. Dave kept repeating to Dennis that "Jack was really upset".
Soon thereafter, the practice of asking for and compiling such data was discontinued. The episode still bothered Dave because this outcome could have been achieved had the initial issue raised by him been squarely addressed. However, not being the "I told you so" type of manager, he set about his other tasks, a bit puzzled and perhaps a bit wiser. He had still not been fired, so he kept a low profile.

2 months later, there was a company party. From a distance, the chairman noticed Dave and beckoned him. "So have you stopped producing that stuff ?" asked Jack Welch.Dave Cote worried that a further inquisition might follow. A colleague, who was standing in the group, interjected, "Jack, you should know that Dave was the guy who kept questioning the need for this report and had recommended stopping it".
"Is that right ?" asked an aghast Jack Welch. "I did not know that. Nobody said that to me."

That evening, in an appreciative and mentoring tone, Dave's boss, Dennis Dammermann said, "Dave, you don’t know how well you have emerged from this episode. That fact is that you wanted to stop it. Yet, not once did you defend yourself by saying, "I told them so." Both these insights have gone down very well with Jack. Good things will happen to you."
Some months later, Dave Cote was selected for a much Senior position, 3 levels higher- a rare honor and privilege at GE.

After i read this, there were a lot of things that sounded relevant in this story. Of course, there is a bit of destiny at play here especially looking at the end result but one thing that is reflective here is an attitude had gotten eventually rewarded here. An attitude that shuns "I told you so..." thought line on seeing something not work.

In our work lives, we are faced with many situations where we could have predicted an outcome of an event, change or a process to be negative and eventually when that negative outcome happens, the first thing our minds wants to do is to sing the tune of "See, i told you so...".
Personally, i see the phrase "I told you so..." quite critically because-
- It is actually a dead statement, of no value. Who does it benefit afterall ? To the recipient, who is anyway down facing negative consequences of the event. Certainly not.

- This statement may give some righteous feeling to the person who says this but may possibly hit recipient’s self-esteem (especially when all he may be anticipating is some empathy).

- This statement promotes a bit of negativity at the work place where the person who uses this seem to be saying- See, i was better than you at foreseeing consequences.

- This statement may eventually be a backward step in a situation which would already be so grim. Imagine, a team facing crisis and someone comes and says that "I told you this will happen". Suddenly, instead of thinking about the way out of the situation, everyone goes back in the past thinking how we could have made better decisions.

- This seems more like one of the parental phrases who might use it to discipline kids. Work place,for sure does not contain any kids, so why use this.

- This may not even be useful completely in postmortem of the situations or projects where the focus is usually the problem and not necessarily the person.

- Uses a statement of this kind affects the risk taking abilities of an individual/team in question. It is as if saying- "I warned you and you still took this step." This may refrain people from trying anything new.

- If such a statement is overused in a team, this probably is a sign of weak team work where passing the blame is the key.

- This statement can only be helpful if you have to hopelessly prove a point against all odds, that too only to some extent.

I am not sure if not using this phrase will get one the rise like the case of Dave Cote but i am sure that over-use of this term will not take one forward for sure. While i will write about why people tend to overuse this phrase sometime later, but it for sure does not add any value to relationships- personal or professional.

When was the last time you heard- “I told you so…” ?

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1 comment:

software integration said...

I don't think we (or at least from what I hear in our big bull pen) use the words "I told you so". It really is unnecessary. People know when they messed up, so there is no need to rub it in their faces. When we have team meetings, we say "We made a mistake in ...". Everyone knows exactly who it was, so there is no need to point out someone.