The Right Way to Respond When Someone Makes a Poor Decision

signs-good-badJeffrey* was the CEO of a hedge fund and he was upset about some poor trades that Pamela, one of his portfolio managers made. Jeffrey called Pamela into his office.

“What were you thinking making those trades?” he asked her.

Everything after that went downhill. With that first question, it would be hard for it to have gone any other way.

Why is that a bad way to start the conversation and what could Jeffrey have done differently?

“What were you thinking?” is a past-focused question. When Pamela explains her thinking, she will sound defensive because we already know that it was faulty. She’ll explain why she made that trade (which, in the situation, is what she did) and he will get angry at her poor judgment (which, in fact, he did). Then they’ll both leave the conversation frustrated and disheartened (which is, predictably, what happened).

A better alternative would have been to ask her this question: “How will you do it differently next time?” This kind of future-focused question allows her to acknowledge her mistake while demonstrating her learning.

Another advantage of a future-focused question? It’s faster and more reliable because you’re removing one step in the learning process. Rather than go over your mistake and then (hopefully) apply the learning to a future situation, you go straight to the application.

If you’re a leader, and you’re dissatisfied with someone’s performance, try asking them what they plan to do in the future.

And if you’re Pamela? If you’ve made a mistake and your manager asks you Jeffrey’s ill-advised question – “What were you thinking?”

As I mentioned, it would be hard for the conversation to go well.

Hard, but not impossible.

Your best move is a sleight of hand. Even though your manager is asking about the past, you should, instead, answer the question that wasn’t asked: the future-focused one.

“What was I thinking?” You could say, “Clearly not the right things. But here’s what I would do differently next time . . . .”

*Names and some identifying details changed



Peter Bregman

Peter Bregman

Peter Bregman helps CEOs and their leadership teams break down silos and tackle their most important priorities together. He teaches courageous leadership in an annual Leadership Week. He is the author, most recently, of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, a Wall Street Journal best seller, winner of the Gold Medal from the Axiom Business Book awards, named the best business book of the year on NPR, and selected by Publisher's Weekly and the New York Post as a top 10 business book. He is also the author of Point B: A Short Guide to Leading a Big Change and co-author of five other books. Featured on PBS, ABC and CNN, Peter is a regular contributor to Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Forbes, National Public Radio (NPR), Psychology Today, and CNN as well as a weekly commentator on Fox Business News. Get notified when he writes a new article.

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