Business Skills Archives - The School Of Life

Some things are awkward to say not so much because they require a particularly deft or careful choice of words but because it’s difficult to get into the frame of mind in which we feel it’s legitimate for us to say what we have to say.

It’s so hard to tell someone that they’re fired because we want to see ourselves as good people. And to get to grips with the difficulty of firing someone we have to ask an important – but usually ignored – question: ‘what is it to be good?’

Mostly we don’t ask because the answer already feels obvious: being good involves making other people happy; it means being nice and being warm and generous towards the hopes and feelings of the people around us. This answer is endlessly re-enforced from childhood on; in all children’s books when a mean character learns to be good, it’s because they start paying more attention to the concerns of other people; they discover empathy, compassion and tenderness.

This is why firing someone makes us feel so awful: we’re acutely aware that being dismissed will distress them; they’ll feel humiliated; they might weep; they might get angry and tell us that we don’t care about them at all and that we’re treating them in a monstrously unfair way.

But there’s another model of goodness, which is very important in our practical lives – but which doesn’t get nearly as much attention. This is the idea of goodness-as-excellence. Someone is a good tennis player because of the reliable, superlative (‘excellent’) accuracy with which they play their shots; they may not have particularly tender or sweet thoughts about their opponents. In fact at times, victory will mean that their opponents are going to be frustrated, disappointed, even infuriated. The good tennis player isn’t setting out to humiliate, they aren’t randomly cruel, it’s just that on the court, their eye is on something else besides niceness: playing the game really, really well.

The divergence between goodness-as-niceness and goodness-as-excellence sometimes comes to a head when selecting people for teams. There may be a child who has set their heart on being in the school swimming team; they practice a lot and they’re good friends  with others already in the squad. But if they’re not a properly good swimmer they can’t and shouldn’t get a place on the squad, even when their friend is choosing. They’re being rejected not out of cruel indifference to their feelings but out of a devotion to excellence.

And it’s the same thing that happens around firing someone. They have to be fired not because they have a bad soul, but because they are not good at their job. The person who fires them is being good, just not in the good-as-niceness way: they are showing an honourable devotion to the excellence of a business.

Part of the pain of being a boss is that you can’t be sentimental, in other words, you can’t aim for two incompatible things and avoid making a choice. Society on the whole is sentimental in a number of areas – people who, for instance, will happily eat a chicken sandwich will recoil in horror from the sight of an industrial slaughterhouse. We want companies to provide good products and services at a decent price, but we don’t like the idea of people being fired from their jobs. To be a boss is, in effect, to have to run the slaughterhouse as well as the sandwich shop. It means having to do the things that are not at all nice in the service of the good.

The actual words of the meeting might be fairly simple, quick and direct (it’s like ripping of a sticking plaster in one painful moment rather than prolonging the agony by teasing it off gradually):

I’m so sorry but we’re going to have to let you go. We all respect and like you hugely. But the needs of our team are taking us in a new direction. I know this is very painful – but I do hope that one day, not now but one day, you’ll realise that this truly isn’t personal.

The hard thing isn’t stringing the words together, it’s realising that in saying them you are not, as you fear, being a conclusively horrible person; you’re following a lonely, but genuine, path to a distinctive kind of goodness.

A deadline is looming and a member of your team hasn’t made much progress on the crucial part of the task that’s been assigned to them. You feel like going up to them and insisting they make a concentrated effort immediately: Do it now! The strong temptation is to get stern and controlling – and keep them at it, under your eye if need be, until it’s finished.

©flickr. Clive Holloway

But there’s a huge problem: your peremptory demands are very likely to undermine your colleague’s ability to perform. They’ll feel flustered and harrassed; they’ll not be able to muster the necessary levels of attention and energy; they’ll make mistakes. Just as significantly, they’ll get resentful: they’ll begin to see you as a tyrant to be hated rather than a team member to be helped.

The more work requires the use of the mind, the more galling the situation becomes. It’s possible (at a theoretical extreme) to make someone hew rocks or chop trees more or less at gunpoint. People who ran slave galleys didn’t have to worry about team morale. For thousands of years, the only tool of management was the whip. But it’s not nowadays remotely possible to motivate an unhappy employee to identify an anomaly in the year-end accounts or come up with a resonant ad slogan or make an elegant refinement to a dress design by being mean and impatient. The more worried, oppressed or anxious an individual feels, the less likely it is that the creative and delicate elements of their mind will ever be coaxed into action. You might be able theoretically to browbeat them into getting the job done – but it won’t be work you’ll ever have any use for.

I’m so sorry to contact you; I know I must come across as deeply annoying and unreasonable. However, I’m just wondering how you might be getting on with the project. Your work is so valuable, we need you more perhaps than you can realise. I might just be fretting, and maybe you have it all in hand, but if you could try to make sure that you can meet (ideally comfortably!) the deadline we agreed, I for one will feel so much more at ease. Needless to say, I’m simply so grateful – and deeply look forward to hearing from you whenever time allows.

The strategy and vocabulary originate in a place that doesn’t immediately seem to have any connection to the modern office: international diplomacy.  Diplomacy emerged as the urgently needed alternative to the devastations of war; if you could soothe and encourage, rather than insist, it might be possible to avoid besieged cities and bodies on the field. Diplomacy turned to words like ‘possibly’, ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’  in order to create space for the free (rather than enforced) assent of the other. It used praise rather than criticism and suggestion rather than a hectoring demand. It wasn’t the result of cowardice or weakness, but a painfully learned lesson in the way in which a just cause, directly stated, can completely fail to get the desired results.

©flickr. Clive Holloway

In our panic, we tend to get stern and forget what we know from the inside. We ourselves don’t respond well to being badgered. Instead it’s the feeling that we are loved, valued, appreciated and liked that brings out the best in our cognitive capacities and builds our motivation: we feel safe enough to explore a promising but difficult line of thought; we feel encouraged to do the absolute best we can; we get more imaginative, more perceptive and more energetic.

We’re encountering the work version of a large – and maddeningly central – feature of the human condition: the correctness and legitimacy of a message doesn’t immediately get the person who hears it to do the reasonable or right thing: a sarcastic demolition of an absurd idea tends to entrench those who believe it; proving by facts and logic that someone is an idiot usually does little to induce them to be reasonable and wise. If you insist that your child eats some lettuce because ‘nutritionists have proved it will help with cardiovascular circulation and you won’t get any screen time if you don’t,’ they will be sure to develop a lifelong aversion to greens; if a teacher is openly appalled that a pupil fails to understand something, their chances of remedying the error are massively reduced. When environmental activists make us feel hopeless, sinful and guilty, we tend to turn away and pretend there is no problem.

I shouldn’t worry, I know, you do amazing things at this company; but if there’s any way you might let me know whether the project is progressing as it should, then you’d be able to put my absurd fears finally and fully to rest. I know that, as always, you’ll be able to do such a brilliant job.

It may feel like another frantic Thursday afternoon but in fact you are participating in an honourable and eternal struggle: to make a difficult truth powerful and attractive in the complex mind of another person.

We tend to have a pretty confident attitude towards the technical failings of the people we work with. These failings may be maddening, but we know how to put them right; someone needs to go on a course to update their knowledge of building regulations or attend a seminar on data entry. We don’t feel too much angst around pointing out either the problem or the remedy.

But it’s entirely different when it comes to an equally serious range of failings a colleague might have in psychological, temperamental or personal areas. It feels much harder – weird, ‘heavy’ and impossible – to mention that they go on too much in meetings; that they use too much (or not enough) deodorant; that they appear too posh when dealing with clients; that they come across as petty and pedantic or that they seem rather defensive in the face of even mild criticism. These are matters we could raise with our partner or perhaps a close friend but at work, to do seems to overstep an unwritten but very real boundary.

The core task is to let another person know of their issue in a way that makes them trust that they have not simply meanly been singled out for fruitless cruel condemnation. And there is no better way to help them do this than to manifest a frequent mature and genial recognition of our own flaws of character:

Yet again, I was a bit of an idiot last week. While trying to get a point across to some clients, I managed to get unnecessarily fired up. I guess I felt criticised and under pressure and, in a defensive mood, made claims that I don’t actually believe in. Of course, no one directly mentioned anything at the time, but I could see that they kept looking at me in this strange way. I’m going to need to think about all that.


I’m having a lot angst around X, they’re so intimidating – at least to me – I find myself mumbling and just agreeing with them like I’ve got no mind of my own. I’m going to have to do something about it  – but what?

Oh by the way, speaking of my trouble, I was just wondering …

The tendency to defensiveness is set off not just because a statement feels critical but because we assume that we could not both have a given failing and be understood and thought a decent person. So a central move – prior to breaking news to a colleague – is to establish your own position as a fellow and repeated sufferer. You’re not saying you have their flaw precisely, just one of similar gravity and worthy of a similar quota of embarrassment, but then also of plentiful doses of forgiveness and understanding. Your own failing must be current, rather than be consigned to an earlier phase of existence (it is crushing to be told ‘I used to have your problem’ which at once implies an enraging superiority). And it helps if it seems as though you are at once aware of the problem and still actively searching for a way forward:

Whenever someone criticises me, I always have a habit of thinking: ‘that can’t be true, you’re just being mean’. I know they say not to take it personally but I’m struggling with trying to remember that at key moments….

I have such trouble choosing the right sort of clothes in the morning. I want to look smart – I guess we all do – but also remain comfortable. I know sometimes I get it a bit wrong and maybe come across as scruffy, even just messy. I wonder if you’ve ever felt like that?


I was hearing about this company where they have an ironic prize for the person who talks the most in meetings! I think I might win it, but you might almost snatch it from me…

All our personal failings are essentially inadvertent. Most people don’t say anything to us about them not because these failings don’t exist, but because they don’t care about us enough to undertake the emotional effort that is required to mention them. None of us needs a huge lecture to take on board what is being said. The most mild wink in the direction of the matter will almost always be enough for a lifetime. We may even eventually realise that we’ve not been singled out for mockery; we’ve been given a gift.

In the ideal office there would be notice hanging above the door saying: Everyone here has an awkward personal failing. Except me: I have many.

One of the greatest problems of our working lives is that we lack any experience of, or instruction in, the essential art of failing well. Because our efforts are focused on appearing utterly professional and flawless, because we are guided by an underlying and punishing notion that we might avoid failure altogether, we lack the energy or insight to respond productively to our inevitable stumbles. We forget an essential truth: the issue at work is never whether we will fail or not; simply whether we will fail well or not.

Our bad failures tend to follow a familiar pattern: we deny that anything has gone, or could even go, wrong. When conclusively rumbled, we deny there is much of an issue, blame the person who upbraids us, and suggest they might be being absurdly mean or critical. Or else we fold and go in for histrionic apology, beg for our lives, overdo the contrition and make our colleagues wish they had never said anything to begin with.

A wiser response to screwing up might have some of the following components:

1. A Clear and Unashamed Apology

I’m going to put my hands up here. I’ve made a mistake. I’m so sorry.

Half of the population at least is trapped in a defensive-perfectionist pattern of behaviour. That is, they suffer from an extreme reluctance to acknowledge fault and when it’s pointed out to them, imagine that their entire selves are under assault, as opposed to trusting that it is merely one of their behaviours that is being critiqued. They are told it would be great if they could increase the margin size on a document. All they can hear is ‘You don’t deserve to exist’. One tells them it would have been great if the August figures had been a bit higher; they assume you want them dead. A prerequisite of a good apology is therefore a sound sense of self. You can fail and still have every right to walk the earth.

2. A Technical Explanation for the Screw Up

One reason I messed up was because the systems I’m working with meant that…

There is almost always, at some level, a technical reason for an error. It pays for everyone to know what this might be – so that corrections can be put in place. Which indicates that there is only thing the senior management ever really cares about when it comes to mistakes: that things can go better going forward. There is complete disinterest in poring over the entrails of the failure – except in so far as this can help with the future. Our task is to draw attention to every clue that will help in this regard.

3. An Emotional Explanation for the Screw Up

If I can be frank for a moment, there’s a lot going on at home which means I might not have been in the best frame of mind.

We too often enter the workforce with the punishing idea that to be a good employee means being an emotionless automaton, and therefore that having to admit to emotional disruptions is tantamount to declaring oneself unemployable. But our terror stems from a misunderstanding. The good-enough employee isn’t the one who never has emotional crises; it’s the one who can get a perspective on their fragilities and be honest about their difficulties from a background appreciation of their many genuine strengths.

4. Evidence of Lessons Drawn

What I’m going to take away from this incident is three things in particular. Firstly,…, secondly…, thirdly…

Companies never set out replace people; they want to develop the ones they have – and so what they crave is a hopeful narrative of why they should keep faith with those already in their posts. That means, in essence, that they long for employees to show what exactly they have learnt from each of their mistakes.

5. A Capacity to Move On

Now for the meeting next week…

It’s distinctly possible to apologise too much. If we plead for forgiveness, insist we are the world’s greatest idiot or swear never to make the slightest mistake ever again, it suggests we don’t have a clear sense of the reality of the situation. Our tears don’t bring back lost profit and our promises sound untrue. The most useful thing we can do, to express our maturity and competence, is to get back to our desk, remain confident and hopeful – and keep going.