Nerd Guru

Because technical people need good soft skills to get ahead.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Avoid trouble with the generic personal commitment

Sometimes, you get asked to do things for work at hours you don't want to do them. Especially if you are working with an international work force, time zones occasionally necessitate that you be available when you'd usually have family time. Maybe it is as simple as a checkpoint meeting or perhaps it is as a pressure situation like tagging along with your boss' boss to a high powered affair.

Regardless, there come times when you really can't make such a meeting because you have something personal going on. How do you bow out of a work commitment for personal reasons?

I was forced to think about this recently when a coworker of mine had this exact problem. There was a meeting scheduled on a Wednesday at 4-5 pm, Pacific but this person lived in New England and was supposed to be at a dance recital for his daughter during that time (7-8 pm Eastern). The email exchange that insured went something like this:

East coast prospective meeting attendee:

I'm sorry, but I can't make that time despite the deadline we're all up against due to a recital for my daughter I need to be at. I'd be open to rescheduling the following day, though.


Pretty good, huh? A graceful bow out for a legitimate reason and an offer for an alternative. I thought it was great (I was CC'd on the message), until I saw the reply from the meeting scheduler:

Dear Ben,

I realize it is asking a lot for you to miss personal time, but I myself am missing my son's inaugural landing of the Space Shuttle to make this meeting and Mr. Kurtz is traveling in Shanghai, but will make it also despite the even more inconvenient hour for him. Given our deadlines, I don't thing a reschedule is possible and your attendance is required.


Ouch! That first message doesn't look so good now, does it?

My Dad has a saying that struck me when I read the response from the meeting scheduler. It goes, "first liar has no chance". That's not to say that either party in this exchange is not telling the truth. That's not my point. The idea is, that no matter what you say first, somebody else can come up with something better in response if they think about it hard enough.

That was Ben's problem here. He had what many would consider to be a legitimate reason for missing the meeting, but what he hadn't counted on is that others had even more legitimate reasons, but were going to make the meeting anyway. You might argue that Ben should go ahead and take the negative work repercussions to make the personal commitment, but after thinking about this awhile, I think there is a way out of these situations without having to burn bridges at work.

Be generic.

Consider if Ben had originally replied with:

I'm sorry, but I can't make that time despite the deadline we're all up against due to a personal commitment I need to be at. I'd be open to rescheduling the following day, though.


Notice that the only difference between the two messages was to replace 4 words ("recital for my daughter") that offer a specific excuse with two words ("personal commitment") that offer a generic one. Ben could be donating a kidney to the Pope for all Jerry knows. By removing the specificity, Ben avoids having his reason compared with someone else's sacrifice.

Better yet, consider if Jerry presses the point and asks what the commitment is. The situation begins to creep into privacy rights issues and all Ben has to reply back with is "It's personal, I'd rather not get into the details."

Now, keep in mind that you have to be careful with this tactic. Miss too many meetings, regardless of how unreasonable the timing might be, and you will be causing yourself trouble at work. If it happens more than you are willing to be involved with, though, maybe that's not a job you want to keep anyway. Either way, use this technique sparingly despite its potential effectiveness.


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posted by Pete Johnson @ 10:09 AM   0 comments

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