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Pfeffer: When Bad Things Happen, Tell Your Story

Jeffrey Pfeffer|Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford University and Author
Monday, 12 Sep 2011 | 12:22 PM ET

Control Your Own Message

Be Your Own Champion

Openness Holds Everyone More Accountable

When then-Emory professor (and now Yale associate dean) Jeffrey Sonnenfeld resigned over allegations of vandalism in the late 1990s—allegations later retracted when both Emory and Georgia Tech, which withdrew a deanship offer, paid Sonnenfeld hefty sums after being sued—Sonnenfeld did nothing to take control of the story.

Soon his name appeared in leading newspapers as Emory’s then president, William Chace, decided to anonymously tell the world his opinion of Professor Sonnenfeld.

This mistake—of not taking the initiative when bad things happen to you so you have some chance of appearing powerful and getting your side of the story out—was not one former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz was going to make. When she was fired, she took the initiative to tell her employees, and the world, about it.

Good move.

Lots of people get fired and then come back—think Bernie Marcus, co-founder of the Home Depot fired from Handy Dan Home Improvement, Jamie Dimon, JP Morgan Chase’s CEO forced out of Citigroup by Sandy Weill, or Rudolph Crew, named the best school superintendent in America in the spring of 2008 after being forced from his New York School’s chancellorship by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani and before being fired by the Miami-Dade County School board that fall (which goes to show that job performance and keeping your job are only loosely related, a point I make repeatedly in "Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t").

It’s not just high profile people who suffer this fate. Many people will suffer career difficulties and reversals. The question is whether or not they have the persistence and resilience to recover.

Here are some ways of thinking about what to do if and when some bad thing happens to you.

"More power to Carol Bartz for telling it like it is and, in the process, asserting her power and not slinking away." -Professor and Author, "Power: Why Some People Have It - and Others Don't", Jeffrey Pfeffer

The first principle is obvious but often-ignored: if you appear embarrassed or ashamed about what occurred, others will feel the same. Maybe people will distance themselves from you anyway, but they certainly will if you act as if you have done something terrible. Carol Bartz did her best to turn Yahoo around. By the time she got there a lot of Yahoo talent had already left and the company was struggling—that’s why she was brought in in the first place. Was she successful? Clearly not. If you take on big challenges, you’re going to fail sometimes. But because people believe that the world is a just place, they think that people always get what they deserve—including themselves. So when bad things happen, they immediately ask, “what did I do to deserve this?” While you should obviously learn from your mistakes, sometimes the answer to the question is “nothing.”

Second principle: no one will stick up for you if you are unwilling to stick up for yourself. People like a fighter, and people respond positively to strength (an explanation from recent public opinion polls as to why President Obama is having so many problems). By taking the initiative, Bartz demonstrated the same qualities that have made her successful throughout her career and in any event define her as a person: she is not going to be—or play—a victim and she is going to control the message and how and when it is delivered.

Third principle: openness holds everyone more accountable for their actions. The board wanted to fire her, fine. Then let the board explain why and take responsibility for not only firing her but doing it by telephone (not the most polite or sensitive move)—none of this “she left to pursue other interests” or the many other euphemisms so common in such situations and in companies in general.

In case you haven’t been reading the news, we live in a world in which truth seems like an endangered species. More power to Carol Bartz for telling it like it is and, in the process, asserting her power and not slinking away.

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University and author of Power: Why Some People Have It—and Others Don’t.

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