Sorry, Sir, Your Ego Trip Has Been Unavoidably Delayed

As part of celebrating the seven terrific years of training I’ve had with my now departing Rec & Ed Aikido instructor, I am dedicating a few posts to things I’ve learned from my training and how it has reflected in other areas of my life. This first one actually deals with the lesson I learned most recently.

Over the last few years I believe I’ve become more tolerant of mistakes. Perhaps it’s due to getting older, or from raising children (a learning and humbling experience to this day), but I’m pretty sure my Aikido training has had an effect. All my instructors have been such incredible examples of support and forgiveness of my countless mistakes on the mat, it seems wrong for me not to do the same with others.

My instructor was my Uke at my last test. That involved a lot of trust on his part.
My instructor was my Uke at my last test. That involved a lot of trust on his part.

My day job as Director of Quality at a software services company includes quite a bit of training and coaching our engineers. Our industry is highly regulated and safety-critical, and one of my responsibilities is checking that our procedures are followed. When someone fails to do so, it is most often an honest mistake, and I do my best to address it in as positive and constructive a fashion as possible. I’ve been doing this for many years and like to think I’m pretty good at it.

And then, one fateful recent morning…

I’d been invited to a review of a key project document. Among other things, I check that such documents follow our quality standards and are fit for a formal engineering review. I looked it over before the meeting and found some errors. That’s expected. But as the meeting progressed and more problems surfaced, it became clear to me that the document was not up to snuff. And the author admitted there were some portions of the document (his document) that he wasn’t entirely clear on.

I was annoyed. The author was trained and qualified. Why had he called for a review when he was clearly not ready? He’d tied up several very busy, high-level engineers for an hour on a document that would need substantial rework. This was clearly not acceptable. I decided I would call this person into my office, and politely but firmly point out that our process calls for better preparation, and that he should have gotten some answers to his questions before calling the review. We have rules here, after all.

I decided to hold off until after lunch to do this, and set about catching up on my emails. Among them was one from my boss regarding how to organize some tests on another project. His direction did not fit our usual procedures, and also seemed contrary to something he’d said to me earlier. I sent off a reply to that effect, copying a couple of other people I thought needed to hear my take on it. Five minutes later I got a phone call from my boss.

He was annoyed. Had I bothered to get the facts regarding this particular situation? I had also misinterpreted what he’d told me earlier. And why had I dragged two other high-level, very busy managers into what should have been discussed with him alone? He let me have it. And on every point he was absolutely right.  I hadn’t gotten the facts first. I should have looked up his earlier direction. And there was no need to involve others in my reply. I’d failed to follow my own rules.

What had happened to my usual respect for the time and feelings of others, not to rush to judgment, or, say, – to be more tolerant of mistakes? In short, where was the behavior that is expected both in the workplace and on the training mats? The answer was clear – my ego had shoved it out of the way. What was that I’d been told earlier about, “once you think you’re good at something…”? (See previous post.)

Lesson learned: respect is not something you practice only when convenient, or when people are behaving as they should. It is 24-7, to be practiced in any and all situations. Sometimes we are Shite and lead, and sometimes we must be Uke and go where the situation takes us. But we can always choose how we behave towards others.

I do this to you with the greatest possible respect.
I do this to you with the greatest possible respect.

I did express my concerns about the review after all, but it was a quiet word with the engineering director (the proper contact) instead of a confrontation with the author. I later realized that out of my hasty, disrespectful email, my boss had unknowingly given me a valuable gift – a chance to avoid doing something even more hasty and disrespectful. So I did what one does when given a gift. I thanked him.

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