Saturday, November 14, 2009

Combatting Irrational Behavior and your Fear of Correcting it

There are times that we all have to work with other people or organizations —sometimes our own—that seem (to us, anyway) to be irrational. Merriam-Webster defines irrational as follows:
(1) : not endowed with reason or understanding (2) : lacking usual or normal mental clarity or coherence b : not governed by or according to reason. [1]
As always, a real world example is probably in order—the one that prompted me to write this will do nicely.

Yesterday, I was contacted by someone who was looking for help. Specifically, they were looking to see if I could help them get a product group to focus on an issue they were having with one of their applications. This issue was happening on two client machines and it was causing them to not be able to complete some testing. The problem had surfaced a few weeks ago and I even recall this same individual mentioning it. At the time, I asked for more details and assigned one of my experienced managers to help, but never got any response. Now, the situation was critical in their mind: if it wasn't resolved, it would go into some nasty sort of escalation that would end in a flurry of accusatory emails deriding our poor support (even though my organization is being asked to help and do not have responsibility for their project—you have to love corporations).

My first thought was that maybe I should get them to answer my original questions. Now that it was critical, I got my answers. The answers were interesting, though, because they indicated that they had found a solution to their problem on the product's web site. They were even kind enough to provide me with a link. Essentially, these two clients had a corrupt install of the base software upon which their application was running. The solution offered? Re-install the software.

Apparently, this re-installation had worked in every other case where they had encountered the same problem. So, what about these two clients? Did they follow this procedure and are they still having a problem? I was getting myself ready to do battle with the product group on their behalf. Alas, you can probably guess the response: No, they did not follow the procedure. These two individuals did not want to take the time to re-install the software.

As I sat dumbfounded looking at the email on my screen, I realized something profound: this type of behavior had to have been encouraged by someone or some cultural factor within that team. Why wouldn't anyone who came across this problem just tell them to re-install the software and move on? The only thing I could come up with is that they were afraid to tell them to do so. (Fortunately, I did not have the same fear and I was pretty blunt: follow the advice of the product's web site and reinstall the software. If you still have a problem, then I will find someone that can help.)

Fear. Being afraid. They are powerful emotions even within the confines of a corporate culture. While I have seen the emotion used as a motivator, it is rare and necessarily short lived. More commonly, it seems that this type of fear prevents people from acting as they should while it obscures real and simple solutions to problems.

I am sure most of us (including me) are victim to this type of thinking from time-to-time. While hierarchy and customer relationships can make it hard to have the courage to tell someone that they are not acting in the best interest of themselves or the company, it is something we ignore at our own peril. The cost of irrational behavior in the case I described is not calculable yet. Nevertheless, the costs are real.

How much will you let irrational behavior cost you?

References

[1] "irrational." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 14 November 2009 <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/irrational>
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