Reining In the Office Imagination

Don't jump to conclusions on the basis of short e-mails or overheard conversations. Wait for the facts instead of wasting your time worrying

I read in my child's preschool newsletter that the children are learning about outer space, so I was anxious to hear from my four-year-old what new information he had acquired. "So, what did you learn about space?" I asked him. "Well, we learned that there were nine planets, but one of them turned out to be a rock, so they blasted it with a ray-gun," he said. I have heard that the ages four through seven years are called "the years of magical thinking," so I let that bit of embroidery go.

But when I asked "Did you learn anything else?" he said, "Yes! I learned that there are aliens who come to Earth and try to blend in like regular people, but some of them are bugs, and one of them is a dog." I stood there, mouth agape, trying to make sense of this nonsense, when it suddenly hit me that I had let the kids order the movie Men in Black from the cable company the previous weekend. So some of his new information came from the preschool curriculum, but most of it came from Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.

I can't fault my four-year-old for combining the information he'd acquired at school with the additional facts about outer space he had gathered by watching a movie about aliens. He wouldn't know to give one data source more credibility than the other.

Process of Misinformation

This incident got me thinking about how often we do the same sort of thing at work. We are in constant information-collection and information-processing mode on the job, so it is easy to take bits of data, merge them with things we think we know, and go off half-cocked, with incomplete information. This can lead to bad results: personal embarrassment, unhappy customers, and bad feelings, among other things.

It is easy to see how the half-cocked phenomenon can occur. You take in a piece of information from one source, take another comment and extrapolate from it, throw in some conjecture, and pretty soon you're off and running on a course that's far removed from reality. Here's an example.

You are hard at work in your cubicle when you overhear two colleagues talking just over the cube wall. "Geez, Gloria is in a tizzy," says one. "She's called a mandatory staff meeting for three o'clock." Gloria is your department manager. "What's the topic?" asks the other teammate. "I don't know, but she's on a rampage about it," answers the other as they walk off. You check your e-mail and sure enough, there's been a staff meeting called for three. You walk down the hall to your friend Stan's desk. "Stan, know anything about this meeting?" you ask. "Budgets," he says. "Gloria was talking about them this morning."

Whisper Down the Lane

You start thinking "Is my client service team over-budget this month?" You race back to your desk and call Artie in finance. "How am I doing against budget this month?" you ask. "Give me an hour," says Artie.

An hour! You can't focus on your work, so you wander over to marketing. "Heard anything about this staff meeting?" you ask Amanda, the department coordinator. "Only that Gloria is out of her mind about the numbers," she says. You panic. Did you have any extraordinary expenses this month? You can't remember. On your way back to your cube, you run into Gloria. "You know, I'm canceling my trip to St. Louis next week," you tell her. "I'm very conscious of the budget…."

Instead of being pleased, Gloria is irate. "Are you kidding? You have to get out there and help close that Smith Industries deal! What the heck are you working on that's more important than that?"

Take a Deep Breath

You're confused by her reaction until the 3 p.m. meeting. And here's what you learn: Yes, Gloria is concerned about numbers—sales numbers. Sales for the division are way behind forecast for the month. Gloria wants everyone to focus on closing sales—not cutting costs. You heard "budgets" and immediately thought about expenses—and what that meant for you.

You used up Artie's time and practically gave yourself a heart attack over nothing. You took a few disconnected comments, added your own speculation, and made yourself crazy.

How can you avoid these dangerous assumptions? First, realize that a snippet of a conversation heard over the cubicle wall can't be relied upon. After you heard what you did, you could have read Gloria's e-mail announcing the meeting, noted any to-do items in it, and showed up on time at the meeting. If you think about it, if Gloria had needed anything in particular from you or wanted to know about any expense overruns, she would have said so in her e-mail message or told you herself.

It's easier said than done, of course. Many of us can't wait around. We get anxious about looking bad in a staff meeting. Our fear of losing face causes us to react before we process what we really know. Why, for instance, couldn't you have gone straight to Gloria's desk and asked her, "Is there anything you need from me for today's meeting?"

Choose Not to Listen

When I teach leadership training courses, there is a whole set of very basic techniques that trainees often jokingly refer to as the "no s**t rules." Here they are: Ask questions to make sure you've understood what you've heard. Repeat back what you think has been conveyed to you. Think through the possible courses of action before jumping into any one of them. Ask a few more questions.

These are elementary techniques, but they can be easy to forget. It pays to slow down and review what you know vs. what you suspect, fear, or imagine, before dashing off to solve a problem that may exist only in your mind. You can spend hours or days solving the wrong problem or waste someone else's time.

Office work is stressful enough when we're working on real issues and obstacles that we fully understand. Imagine how much nicer our work could be if we got to focus our energies on things that really mattered. A little extra time and due diligence could help us get there, and next time your colleagues are chatting next to your cube, tune them out, take a walk, or do your homework. Just don't let your imagination run wild.

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