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No Good Deed

As part of my professional life, I serve on boards of associations and non-profits. All of them entail some responsibility. This is a wonderful way to give back to the community and make deep and lasting friendships. It’s not bad for business either, but that’s not what I’m writing about here. Recently, while trying to fulfill one of my responsibilities for one of the boards, I found myself in an unpleasant and somewhat sticky situation.

As part of my professional life, I serve on boards of associations and non-profits. All of them entail some responsibility. This is a wonderful way to give back to the community and make deep and lasting friendships. It’s not bad for business either, but that’s not what I’m writing about here. Recently, while trying to fulfill one of my responsibilities for one of the boards, I found myself in an unpleasant and somewhat sticky situation.

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In this case, my board responsibility entails writing the press releases for the events and sending them out. As a courtesy, I emailed the speaker whom the organization had booked for an upcoming meeting to ask him if he had a press release that he wanted us to use. This person is a well-known speaker who has attained legendary status in the field. The full email message, names and other identifying information excluded to protect the innocent, went as follows:

Dear______:
We are all excited to have you speak.

I’m in charge of getting the word out to the press. Do you have a release prepared for this type of thing and is there anything that you’d like me to include?

Thanks.

The response was swift:

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The release is up to you, I’m doing you the favor. My bio is attached if you need it. How many people are you expecting? Please don’t forget to send logistics and directions.

Thanks.

My immediate reaction was one of surprise, then of anger. “I’m doing you the favor.” My goodness, we are prickly now, aren’t we? But upon rereading my message, I could see where I went wrong. So I counted to 10 and sent back the following message:

I can see by the way I wrote the email that you might think I wanted to shift the responsibility to you. In fact, I just wanted to extend a courtesy. As a board member for a couple of years, last year in charge of programming, I have found that some people are picky about that kind of thing.

I’m happy to do it – had already gotten started, actually, even including your [special honor he recently received]. I was there when you received that honor and suggested to the board that they contact you. So, certainly, I’m deeply appreciative.

I’ll forward your email to the people who can help you with the other info. And I apologize if what I wrote offended you in any way.

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And then I guess, he counted to about 25,000 because later on that day he responded:

No offense, it’s just that I do these events as a favor to the profession and I don’t want to work too hard before them. Again, make sure I have logistics and directions well in advance.

The favor thing again. And the order to provide him with additional info. I was tempted to respond “Yes, sir!” because, by this time, I was getting steamed, so I decided to… let it go. Ahhhh, that deep breath felt good.

I wish that was the end of the story. I should have known better considering what had happened so far. I’m not going to bore you with the details or any more emails. Sufficed to say that I allowed myself to be dragged back in by a third party and it escalated. Bottom line was I just didn’t have the info he demanded and he wasn’t picking up on that. My efforts at politesse that almost always work, did not work here. So, I had to confront him and point him toward people who could help him. That did the trick. Of course, I haven’t been in on further conversations so I don’t know who else is bearing the brunt of this person’s ire. I don’t want to know. At least I’m out of it. I don’t mind being abused when I’m being paid, but I don’t do it for free. I did learn some lessons though.

I can’t help but wonder if I had picked up the phone and called instead of emailing, whether there would have been so much miscommunication. As one of my former professors, the late, great Neil Postman, never tired of saying “Technology is a Faustian bargain; it gives something and it takes something away.” The unfortunate reality, brought home to me in this case, is that written communication lacks the sensitivity necessary to negotiate delicate or explosive issues. Of course, it neve occurred to me that such a situation would be explosive or delicate, but, hey, you never know what’s going to set someone off. Anyway, in substituting writing for speaking, we forfeit the ability to listen to the powerful nonverbal cues of the human voice, which, in this case, would have immediately alerted me to my original faux pas and allowed me adjust my tone, choose my words and extricate us both in short fashion. Perhaps the rest could have been avoided.

I will also say that I have to wonder what makes a person like our speaker tick. Maybe it’s a command and control personality issue or the need to have the last word. You would think that with all his supposed success, he would have been a bit more generous and not felt the need to tell me he was doing us a favor not once, but twice.

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Whenever people behave in such ways, it makes me question their competence. My take is if they have to tell you what a big deal they are, they must not be so great.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe he was just having a bad day. I do plan to attend the meeting and hear him speak. I’m not dumb enough to think there isn’t something I can learn. After all, legends are people too. And he’s already taught me so much.

Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates, LLC • Greenwich, CT • ruth@ruthsherman.comwww.ruthsherman.com

About the author

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant focusing on preparing business leaders, politicians, celebrities, and small business entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communications including keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, road shows, awards presentations, political campaigns and media contact. Her clients hail from the A-list of international business including General Electric, JP Morgan (NY, London, Frankfurt), Timex Group, Deloitte and Dubai World.

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