Discerning the Difference Between “Unexpected” and “Inappropriate”

This is a guest post by Tim Sinclair. He is a radio personality, blogger, and marketing guy who lives in Illinois with his wife Heather and their two boys, Jeremiah and Elijah. He is also active on Twitter. If you want to guest post on this blog, check out the guidelines here.

The second you open the email, it’s obvious. The sender is not happy with you. Not even a little bit. Something you or your company did or said provoked this valued customer to hammer out a blistering note of disapproval in which they threaten to transfer their allegiance (and their money) somewhere else. Usually to your arch-rival.

Someone Writing a Complaint Letter - Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/RollingEarth, Image #4683049

Photo courtesy of ©iStockphoto.com/RollingEarth

If you’ve been in a leadership position for longer than a day-and-a-half, there’s no doubt you’ve read your fair share of these rants. It’s part of the job. However, as my dad would say, “You can’t control what people do to you, you can only control how you react to them.”

So, how do you react?

Well, in my experience, many leaders handle these uncomfortable issues in one of two ways:

  1. Arrogantly
  2. Fearfully

The arrogant leader immediately brushes off the complaint, regardless of its validity, and then deletes the message. Really arrogant leaders will first send off a curt, defensive reply, and then hit the delete key.

A fearful leader, however, instantly apologizes for the error (even if there wasn’t one), and then proceeds to make changes within the organization to prevent the offense (or non-offense) from ever happening again.

Honestly, I’ve operated both ways at times, and I’m guessing that you may have, too. Neither one is a healthy option—for the leader or for the company. So, here’s a quick question I’ve decided to ask myself every time I open a “complaint-o-gram”:

Is this person upset because we did something unexpected or because we did something inappropriate?

There’s a big difference.

As a morning radio host for a Contemporary Christian radio station, I’m faced with this question all the time. Many of our listeners have very definitive expectations about what topics should and should not be discussed on the air. In fact, we’re almost guaranteed to get an angry phone call or email if we bring up any of the following:

  • American Idol
  • Oprah
  • Michael Jackson
  • Teletubbies
  • Anything that may have taken place in Las Vegas

Each topic may be unexpected for some. However, it’s certainly not inappropriate, given the context in which we are discussing it. Frankly, it’s part of our mission as a morning show to address “pop-culture” topics from a Christian worldview.

Hello, delete key.

However, we recently broached a “family-planning” issue on the air. We cleverly (I thought) called it “v-day.” At the time it seemed like we were being both relevant and tasteful. But after some reflection, and more than a handful of concerned listeners, it became clear that the line from unexpected to inappropriate had been crossed.

Hello, apologies.

As leaders, it’s in our DNA to push the envelope sometimes. In order to move our companies and organizations forward, it’s almost required. Naturally, complaints are going to come with change (especially if that change is perceived as “edgy”), and that’s why it’s so important to evaluate those complaints in the absence of arrogance and/or fear.

Arrogance can easily send your business careening down a path toward destruction, while fear can just as easily pull you off a road that would have led to sure-fire success.

Next time you see one of those scathing emails in your inbox, try asking yourself the “unexpected vs. inappropriate” question. Hopefully it will help you make a more informed decision on whether to hit “delete” or “reply.”

And take it from me, if you reply, don’t mention Las Vegas.

Question: Do you have an example where you have faced this dilemma?
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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are snarky, offensive, or off-topic. If in doubt, read My Comments Policy.

  • http://gracefreakdan.wordpress.com Dan Rockwell

    Michael,

    Here's one of my examples. A few days ago I received an email with a four page attachment criticizing a presentation I'd given to about 300 people. The complainer laid me open and sliced my content and my motives. It's wasn't pretty. Heck, I was still bathing in the choir of compliments I'd received after the talk. You know, the compliments that inflate egos.

    Arrogance causes me to blame them. In arrogance, I started composing a reply to my critic. But the end of arrogance is an argument. And boy, that sure works …. NOT! So I deleted it. I'm not sure, but in this case, I think I'm opting for silence.

    Looking back on the talk I think you could find both the unexpected and the inappropriate. It's like you indicated. I like to push the envelope because I'm shooting for change.

    In some cases my personal life-vision sustains me when flaming emails arrive.
    http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/c

    In other cases it just hurts. And sometimes I can walk away.

    I feel like I'm leaving a confessional. You hit the nail again.

    Regards,

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell
    My recent post A taste of Friday

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      When my friend, Luci Swindoll, receives criticism like this, she just responds, “You might be right.” I think this response buys you a little time, so you can process it more fully. It also takes the emotion out of it. Thanks!

      • http://gracefreakdan.wordpress.com Dan Rockwell

        Michael,

        I'm using that… thanks.

        My recent post A taste of Friday

      • Deana

        I use that phrase myself. My manager taught me that when I worked for Motorolla back in the 90's. Excellent post Mr Hyatt. When faced with unexpected criticism I tend to react from a place of fear and apologize before properly analyzing the situation. A pastor friend cured me of that when he'd taken offense over something I'd said and I immediately jumped in to make it right and asked for forgiveness. His response? "No sin committed, therefore forgiveness is neither needed nor offered. Just because I chose to be offended, doesn't mean you are wrong." I'm still learning.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

      The worst response I've ever had to a presentation was… "it was just OK." I've had all sorts of feedback over the years, both positive and negative, but that one really bugged me. It gave me no feedback for improvement. In any good sized presentation, it always seems like there is at least one person in your audience that will complain or find fault. The old saying, "you can't please everybody," is so true.
      My recent post What Do You Want In An iBook?

      • http://gracefreakdan.wordpress.com Dan Rockwell

        John,

        I'm with you. I don't want to be "ok." Someone said, "we either love or hate great products." Great products get 5 stars or no stars. They aren't in the middle.

        Thanks
        Leadership Freak
        My recent post A taste of Friday

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

        That response would slay me. Love me or hate me. Just don’t call me okay!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/success2you John Richardson

    Great post, Tim. I ran into a similar situation yesterday on my blog. I had posted a simple question asking people what they thought should be on a "Success Checklist" (http://bit.ly/ciIPuk ). One of the items that was on my list was Faith. I had written …"For me, faith in God is so very important. Everything else revolves around it."
    I received this comment from a subscriber…

    For me, faith in leprechauns, Quetzalcoatl, and third-eye extrasensory chakras is so very important. Everything else revolves around it.
    Another belief I hold is that your RSS subscriber number just dropped by one. Don't worry, it's a tiny loss!

    At first I thought I would just delete it, since I have a comments policy similar to Michael's that precludes snarky or offensive comments. But this one was a little different. If this person didn't believe in faith, I truly wondered what his "Success Checklist" would include. So I responded by asking that very question.

    Maybe asking a question to some of your callers might bring out some interesting insights.

    My recent post What Do You Want In An iBook?

    • http://twitter.com/timjsinclair @timjsinclair

      Well done John! A lot of people (including me at times) would be tempted to either delete the comment or respond in-kind. Add faith to the mix, and it gets even more difficult. Great suggestion!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Cindy_Graves Cindy_Graves

    I LOVE Tim's dad's quote. I've used that exact one with my 3 girls since they were three years old (they are now 25, 21 and 18)! I've often heard them repeat those words to the children they lead through their service at our church or at their own job (no grandchildren to try it out on yet). They are wise words to remember.

    Our reactions to people in these situations can either heal or further wound. As believers we should be about building people up, not tearing them down. However, that does not require us to be a snivling, weak doormat. If you start with, "I'm sorry you feel that way. What would make you change your mind?" you open the door for a conversation where you may discover the root of the problem. But here's a word of warning – it takes an investment of time and effort on your part because sometimes people just want to rant, they don't want to feel better or solve anything.
    My recent post Help Haiti Live, February 27

  • Dave

    Deleting emails and apologizing are not your only options; if you feel that way, I’d question the quality of your initial decisions.

    Ideally, you should be striving to make decisions based on some kind of logical thought process. Not only does that lead to better decisions, but it puts you in a better position to evaluate the decision after the fact. Can you respond to the customer by explaining your reasons, and having a real discussion about why you think they are still valid? Can you respond by telling the customer that they’re right about your reasons not being valid?

    These are the discussions that earn respect. That’s what you do when your priority is long-term relationships and improvement of your strategy. Deleting and apologizing — that’s what you do when your goal is to get customers out of your inbox as quickly as possible.

    • http://twitter.com/timjsinclair @timjsinclair

      Dave…you're right. You absolutely should be able to back up your decisions with logical explanations. I've found, however, that many leaders (though not many good ones) tend to be very un-logical when it comes to defending themselves, their actions, their companies, etc. They either act like a know-it all or spend time trying to smooth over a situation that doesn't require smoothing.

      Anything, taken to an extreme, can become a negative…including my "apologize or delete" approach…but hopefully this idea helps get the process started for those who are struggling.

  • http://www.womenlivingwell-courtney.blogspot.com WomenLivingWell

    I ran into this on my blog right after I was on the Rachael Ray Show talking about "loving" my role as a stay at home mom. The haters made remarks like me being an airhead, stepford wife, doormat… At first, I was offended and responded "defensively" on the RRay site. Then I was embarrassed of my reaction and changed my response. Some of the haters starting coming over to my website and leaving hate messages there too…I began to delete them and then it hit me…leave them there.

    It helped my readers 1. See what we are up against and 2. Come to my defense. It was much nicer to have loyal readers defending me rather than me pridefully defending myself! Plus, my readership jumped as others wanted to see what the stir was all about. It ended in a win for me numbers wise and I gained a lot of loyal readers. So now I'm thankful for the haters haha!
    Courtney
    http://www.womenlivingwell-courtney.blogspot.com
    My recent post Book Review and Giveaway: Dancing With My Father by Sally Clarkson

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/michaelhyatt Michael Hyatt

      I have discovered that my readers do a much better job defending me that I do. The only comments I delete are the ones that are profane or just outrageous. (I doubt that I have deleted 10 comments in my entire career as a blogger—not counting spam, of course.)

  • William

    Apologizing for the result instead of the action sometimes helps as well. Often I have stated, "I am so sorry if something I said or did made you feel that way. It was certainly not my intention." Now, I have sometimes later had to go back and be more pointed and apologize for my words or actions, too, but the first statement admits no wrong, only that you didn't mean to make them upset (unless or course, that was your aim.)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/halhunter halhunter

    Anyone who has been in retail sales or customer service or public life in general has been faced with this dilemma- how to respond to a complaint. There are all sorts of possibilities.

    Some people are simply wingnuts and dialog is not going to be productive (or even possible- these are often anonymous). Hitting delete is usually the best for these.

    Some people are mistaken and need to be helped to properly understand. Dialog with these folks is often productive, but you have to be careful not to injure egos by improperly pointing out their mistakes. And understanding how they made the mistake or came to an incorrect understanding can help you improve your product.

    Some people have genuinely suffered a problem of your making, and need to be heard, apologized to, and made whole. And again, it can help you prevent the same problem from recurring.

  • http://twitter.com/KarynBrownlee @KarynBrownlee

    Great post! As a former school principal, I learned many a lesson the hard way regarding emails. I adopted a rule: Information in email; issues in person.

    When you can answer a question with information, email is the most efficient method. But if an issue needs to be addressed, doing so in person is often preferable, as emotions are likely to be a factor. Email cannot adequately capture emotion. And emotions usually tend accompany our replies, as you implied. Out of the fearful or arrogant heart, harmful emotions often spring. After all, ""The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?" Jer 17:9

    Thanks for taking the time to share your advice via Michael's blog. "Inappropriate" or "unexpected" are great filters to use in discerning a best reply.
    My recent post Science says: Happiness is good for the heart

  • http://twitter.com/KarynBrownlee @KarynBrownlee

    Great post! As a former school principal, I learned many a lesson the hard way regarding emails. I adopted a rule: Information in email; issues in person.

    When you can answer a question with information, email is the most efficient method. But if an issue needs to be addressed, doing so in person is often preferable, as emotions are likely to be a factor. Email cannot adequately capture emotion. And emotions usually tend accompany our replies, as you implied. Out of the fearful or arrogant heart, harmful emotions often spring. After all, ""The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?" Jer 17:9

    Thanks for taking the time to share your advice via Michael's blog. "Inappropriate" or "unexpected" are great filters to use in discerning a best reply.
    My recent post Science says: Happiness is good for the heart

    • http://twitter.com/timjsinclair @timjsinclair

      Thanks Karyn! As a principal, I'm sure you had more than your fair share of frustrated parents. As with issues of faith, issues with someone's child can often be VERY tense. You probably could have written the article better than I did. :-)

    • http://michaelsgray.com Michael Gray

      Karyn,

      I love the rule, and wish more people followed it (myself included at times).

      I'm a third grade teacher and I had a parent shoot me a nasty email about how harsh and unfair my grading was on one of her daughter's assigments. After crafting a perfect comeback letter (complete with a healthy dose of subtle snarkiness), I had my wife read it.

      That letter was never sent.

      Upon my wife's level-headed critique of my response, I simply sent an email asking that parent to come in so that we could talk about her concern in more detail. Needless to say, she was significantly less nasty, and I was significanly more prepared to discuss my grading criteria without defensiveness.

      Thank God for my wife. She's saved me from myself more than a few times!

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  • http://twitter.com/KarynBrownlee @KarynBrownlee

    Tim, your perspective on this meets most of Michael's audience right where they are. My first attempt at commenting was so long, it had to be shortened. But in my original response, I had included the point that not everyone is in the position to handle issues in person like I was. I was fortunate to have most of my parents willing and able to come to my office. Obviously, I was right in their neighborhood! I could even run up in the evenings to meet them if needed, as I only lived 1.1 mile away. Not a typical situation, I realize. I don't imagine you invite very many to the studio for a chat over coffee! ;) But if and when it fits, it is a great way to go. Since I am at home full time now, I'll be using your filters, I assure you! Thanks again for sharing.

    • http://twitter.com/timjsinclair @timjsinclair

      Very true Karyn. Many small businesses (or schools) have the opportunity to personally address every customer (or student) personally. A position I envy at times. Larger entities have a much tougher time doing that. For us, we have close to 250,000 listeners each week. It's impossible for our staff of 10 to address each comment or criticism. We (and other companies with hundreds of thousands or millions of customers) have to carefully pick and choose who we respond to. It would be very easy to get caught up in the needs of a few and ultimately give up the good of the whole.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/patriciazell patriciazell

    Tim, thanks for your post. In a way, even though you face some tough feedback, at least you can talk about God. (As a public school teacher, I watch my words while at work.) Somtimes I think we Christians act as if we have to protect God's innocence by avoiding relevant topics. God is not offended by what it is going in the world–His love is greater than all of the rotteness surrounding us. Perhaps, we need to talk and pray about asking Him for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom as we look at different issues. Imagine what would happen in the world if we did just that.
    My recent post #30 BECOMING A SON OF GOD: THE BAPTISM OF THE HOLY SPIRIT (2)

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  • http://www.jenniferallee.com Jennifer AlLee

    Great post, Tim. I had to laugh at "don't mention Vegas." See, I'm a Christian who lives in Las Vegas, so I'm very familiar with the attitude that nothing good comes from here. When I told one of my friends at our SoCal church that my family felt called to move to Las Vegas, she was appalled. "Why would God send you to Sin City?" she asked. And I answered, "Why wouldn't He?" Almost four years later, I'm thrilled with our new home, and I have started telling people I live in the grace-filled city of Las Vegas. It's all in how you look at something :)

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