What Do You Do When Your Preliminary Data Comes Back to Haunt You?

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Sep 14, 2017

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where someone (usually your boss or a higher-up) makes an announcement or a decision using draft or preliminary figures that you had given them some time ago? Only today the correct figures are different from what you presented as a draft. Then when you ask why the “old” numbers were used, the finger points back at you.

Awkward, isn’t it?

Suddenly you’re on the defensive and your credibility challenged because of an earlier estimate or cautionary advice that perhaps you didn’t want to give out in the first place.

You want to scream at the offending party, “Don’t you remember that I told you that the figures weren’t final?” That your analysis was incomplete at the time, that further checking was required, or that you gave your best estimate based only on preliminary data?

But you are the author of those figures, no matter how wrong they are today. So why are they still in play?

Selective memory

It often turns out that all that was remembered by the fellow with the frown on his face was that particular damning figure, and all the buzzing in their ears about qualifier terms and conditions that preceded and followed it has been forgotten. To your chagrin you may now be viewed as someone who either: 1) gave incorrect information, or 2) subsequently changed your mind without telling anyone.

Unfortunately, you can’t say what you’re thinking. That wouldn’t be a good career move. The only card you have to play reads “damage control.” Roll out those qualifiers again.

Earlier in my career, when I was responsible for job evaluation, I would steadfastly refuse to offer a preliminary evaluation, having been burnt by the same scenario as above.  I found that, if the managers liked what they heard, that’s all that they would hear. Because if, lord forbid, the final analysis differed from the preliminary estimate you’d be hauled up before the Inquisition to explain why you changed your mind.

“I already told the employee,” is a phrase I’ve heard more than once – before I learned to keep my mouth shut.

Be careful when dishing up data

So be careful when you give a number to management before you’re confident enough to defend it. For their own purposes,  they’ll grab what you give and lock it down with their fixated, but flawed memory, while at the same time forgetting any qualifier terms or cautions you might have provided.

It’s human nature to remember what you want to hear, or what you can accept. So that preliminary figure you surrounded with qualifiers?: chances are management was OK with the number, or at least could deal with it, and so off they ran to integrate your analysis into their plans.

It’s your credibility

In their forgetfulness, they might even grow irritated with you, for all the plans they made with “draft” or “preliminary” data (shame on them). These folks suddenly act like you changed your mind, or gave them wrong information. All your previous explanations and qualifier comments are lost.

Management memories can be quite selective, and they would be very reluctant to admit an error on their part, never mind deal with the consequences that their actions created. But as they are higher up than you on the food chain, discretion in verbal and written thought still remains your best response.

What can you do?

This is a situation where your options are limited, because: a) you’re likely dealing with your boss or higher, and any critique of their behavior needs be carried out very carefully, and b) when you’re asked for a number you generally have to give one. Begging off is usually not an option.

So remember a tactic once described to me by a training colleague: you have to tell them, then tell them again, then remind them of what you told them. So if caught up in a “give me a number” quandary, you need to emphasize whatever qualifiers might later modify the figure(s) being discussed.  Then you have to repeat your concerns again before closing.

Finally, put the worrisome figures in writing, nicely wrapped together with whatever concerns you have about its validity. Cover yourself.

Will it work?  Will it save you from another awkward moment?  Perhaps.

Life isn’t fair, is it?  So no, even this strategy will fail from time to time. But at least you’ll have positioned yourself to present an effective response.

Just remember to be polite about it.

This was originally published on the Compensation Café blog.