The virtues of falling on your sword at the appropriate time

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At some point, no matter how skilled you are, you are going to make a client upset. There are lots of circumstances where this can happen, some your fault and some not:

– You make a mistake.

– You say something that is insensitive to their style and organizational way of doing things.

– You manage the process poorly, so deadlines are missed.

– There is a mismatch between client expectations of results and your expectations of delivery.

– The client has a crisis, needs to change the project plan, and you resist.

– The client makes a mistake.

In these cases, I find that — for whatever reason (Early childhood issues? Genetic predisposition? Lack of training? Taking the work too personally?) IT professionals tend to get defensive. They try to avoid blame rather than work with the client to get a positive outcome.

These situations feel like a tug of war, with both parties tense and struggling to win. Or, a different metaphor is: pushing against a wall — both parties feel like they are pushing and pushing, getting tired, but making no progress.

In many cases, the best way to handle these situations is as follows:

1. LISTEN to the client, and acknowledge their frustrations. They are stressed out in these circumstances, and can’t listen to you until you let them vent. This is basic Steven Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Successful People stuff. You should take the initiative to meet with them in order to get things on track; don’t wait for them to explode.

2. Take 100% responsibility for the outcome of the conversation. Even if you are not to blame, it is your job to make the project successful. Get on the client’s side, and empathize with their situation.

3. Be prepared to fall on your sword. Apologize for the situation, and especially your role in it. Make amends as needed.

4. Suggest ways to move forward and get back on track.

5. Take action to move forward and get back on track.

Steps 1-3 are especially hard for many professionals. For instance, I coached a client last week who was about to be fired by the client. As we role played (I took the client’s point of view), he refused to just say, “I understand your frustrations, and take 100% responsibility. At the same time, I have a plan to get you back on track in 2 days.” Instead, he kept focusing on his own frustrations with the project, how the client doesn’t acknowledge his hard work on the project, and how the technology he implemented works fine but the client isn’t using it right.

All of his issues were valid. But as a professional, he needs to get into his client’s shoes and figure out how to get things back on track. Otherwise, he risks having someone in the market speaking badly about him, lost fees, and even legal action.

So we role played and role played until he figured out that he needed to listen, fall on his sword (e.g. make amends), and show the client how to move forward. He also realized that he had to take more responsibility for the client’s results. If they weren’t using the technology correctly, he needed to intervene to show them how to use it properly.

What happens when you follow this advice?

1. The client vents, and so has room to hear you.

2. The client knows you are on their side, and appreciates that.

3. The clients views you as a professional, not a vendor.

4. Everyone can relax. In a tug of war, if you gently drop your rope, nobody falls and everyone can stop struggling. That’s what this process feels like.

5. You actually earn respect. Time and again, I’ve seen that clients respect professionals who fall on their sword during these situations. Even if YOU make the mistake, this kind of behavior can lead to rave reviews and referrals. (It’s not always perfect customer service, but rather how you respond to extraordinary and difficult situations that wins a client over).

Yes, this advice does not apply if the client is looking to get a huge amount of work done for free (scope creep), or if they are dishonest and out to get something for nothing. But it does apply in situations where both parties began the project in good faith and have hit a snag.

Okay, let the responses begin…..I’m confident that some of you will have the usual, “Well, MY situation is different. We started out okay, but now my client is really getting antagonistic and annoying….” That’s almost always a sure sign that you may benefit from the above advice.

Frequently Asked Questions about “Falling on Your Sword”

What does the phrase “fall on your sword” mean?

The phrase “fall on your sword” is an idiomatic expression that originates from ancient times when a defeated warrior would choose to die by their own sword rather than be captured. In modern usage, it refers to someone taking responsibility for a failure or mistake, often in a public manner. It’s a way of acknowledging one’s role in a negative situation and accepting the consequences that come with it.

Where does the phrase “fall on your sword” come from?

The phrase “fall on your sword” has its roots in ancient history, particularly in the context of warfare. When a warrior was defeated or dishonored, they would sometimes choose to die by their own sword rather than be captured or killed by the enemy. This act was seen as a final assertion of control and honor. The phrase has since been adopted into modern language as a metaphor for taking responsibility for one’s actions.

How is the phrase “fall on your sword” used in a sentence?

The phrase “fall on your sword” is typically used to describe a situation where someone takes responsibility for a failure or mistake. For example, a CEO might “fall on their sword” by publicly admitting their role in a company’s poor performance and stepping down from their position.

Is “falling on your sword” considered a noble act?

In its original context, falling on one’s sword was considered a noble act as it demonstrated a warrior’s willingness to accept responsibility for their defeat. In modern usage, the phrase often carries a similar connotation of nobility and honor, as it implies a willingness to take responsibility for one’s actions, even when those actions have led to negative outcomes.

Can “falling on your sword” be seen as a sign of weakness?

While “falling on your sword” involves admitting a mistake or failure, it is generally not seen as a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is often viewed as a sign of strength and integrity. It shows that a person is willing to take responsibility for their actions and face the consequences, rather than trying to shift blame onto others.

How does “falling on your sword” relate to leadership?

In a leadership context, “falling on your sword” can be seen as a demonstration of accountability and integrity. Leaders who are willing to “fall on their sword” show that they are not above admitting their mistakes and taking responsibility for their actions. This can help to build trust and respect among their team members.

Is “falling on your sword” always the best course of action?

Whether or not “falling on your sword” is the best course of action depends on the specific situation. In some cases, taking responsibility for a mistake or failure can help to resolve a situation and move forward. However, it’s also important to consider the potential consequences and to make sure that the act of “falling on your sword” is not simply a way of avoiding other necessary actions or changes.

Can “falling on your sword” lead to personal growth?

Yes, “falling on your sword” can often lead to personal growth. By acknowledging and taking responsibility for our mistakes, we can learn from them and make changes that help us to grow and improve. It can be a difficult process, but it can also be a powerful catalyst for personal development.

How does “falling on your sword” impact relationships?

“Falling on your sword” can have a significant impact on relationships. When someone takes responsibility for their actions, it can help to resolve conflicts, build trust, and strengthen relationships. However, it’s also important to remember that “falling on your sword” should be a genuine act of accountability, not a manipulative tactic.

What are some alternatives to “falling on your sword”?

While “falling on your sword” can be a powerful act of accountability, there are also other ways to take responsibility for one’s actions. This could include making amends, implementing changes to prevent similar mistakes in the future, or seeking help or advice to address the issue. The key is to take action that acknowledges the mistake and works towards a resolution.

Andrew NeitlichAndrew Neitlich
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