We are standing in the elevator and I ask my colleague, “how’s the donkey?” She replies, “dead.” We both sigh and the other people in the elevator look at us uncomfortably. A week before, my colleague’s boss made a decision that he wanted her to implement immediately. She was sure he was going to regret the decision and that it would be politically costly to him. She had come to see me to figure out a strategy to get him to change his mind. She went back to him and tried the following:
- She asked him how this assignment fit in the bigger picture and whether he would be open to an alternative approach if it could still produce the desired results.
- She suggested that she could test the idea on a small scale first, as a way to manage the risks.
- She even painted a vivid picture of some possible outcomes that might be unexpected and negative for his career.
His answer to every suggestion was “no, just do it.” We both agreed this was going to end badly for her boss. She was really trying to protect him from himself. Many of us have had similar experiences with clients who simply won’t listen to the advice they have paid us to give them. What do you do?
As a general principle, it is a bad idea to get between a determined person and the consequences of his or her choices. It interrupts the feedback loop so it takes the person longer to learn things. People get as many chances as they need to learn whatever it is they need to learn in this life. This is the good news if you need a second chance, and for people who seem to have to learn the same lesson over and over again, it is also sometimes the bad news.
Many years ago, a Greek friend and I were implementing a decision for a boss who we both thought was determined and wrong. As we worked, my friend mumbled something under his breath in Greek and I asked him what it meant. He looked at the sky, puzzling for a minute and said, “I think it would translate roughly as: tie the donkey in the hot sun like the boss says and let it die.” This was the story I finally shared with my colleague when she was at the end of her rope trying to help her boss. The donkey proverb is now shorthand for situations where we would like to save people from the consequences of their choices, but for some reason we can’t.
You do everything you can to help, but sometimes letting the consequences play out is the only option. In fact, sometimes you may need to protect yourself by making sure the consequences get all the way back to the decision maker so you don’t get caught in the crossfire. Whether it’s a client or a boss who is determined and wrong, remember that if you can’t save his donkey, it will still be helpful if he learns something, even if it is the hard way. Sometimes you just have to let it go. Of course, if it turns out the boss or the client was determined and right and you were wrong, then you get to learn an important lesson yourself.
(Note: no real donkeys were harmed in the preparation of this blog post).