Reality Check: Unintended Effects

When we interact with people, we have control over how we behave. We can choose our actions, our thoughts, perceptions, and to some degree, even our feelings.

What we can’t control is what others do. Smiling at a stranger doesn’t “make” them smile back. (It doesn’t hurt to smile anyway.)

While we are responsible for our own actions, we also know that our actions affect others. Even casual interactions can have effects, perhaps quite unintended effects.

Those effects are especially important in business. A call center employee who initiates a helpful phone call could bring in a new long-term client. A clerk who responds to a customer request in an effective way could improve the perception of the entire company.

Our actions can have a particularly significant impact when we hold a position of authority. Take the example of Teresa, who has been tasked with training a new employee, Kallie.

The training goal is for Kallie to learn to work unsupervised, to make correct decisions and interact appropriately with customers.

Teresa isn’t accustomed to being a trainer, but she is sure of one thing. Kallie needs to understand that she’d better take this job seriously and do exactly as she is told.

Teresa decided that one day of training should be enough to cover everything Kallie needs to know. On training day, Teresa thoroughly lectured Kallie on all her tasks and procedures.

This is Kallie’s first job. She wants to do good work, but she is understandably nervous. Getting all that information at once, combined with lectures on attitude, accuracy, and how to treat customers; it’s a bit overwhelming.

Now on the job, Kallie took a customer phone call asking for information she didn’t have. She excused herself to ask Teresa how to respond. Teresa, who was serving a customer at that moment, barked, “Don’t interrupt me! Can’t you see I’m with a customer!?”

What were the effects of Teresa’s response? Do they match the goal?

One effect—the customer who witnessed this interaction probably felt uncomfortable. Few of us like to see anyone belittled, especially someone in a vulnerable position. Even if Teresa then turned round and acted professionally with the customer, they may conclude, “I’m not sure I want to shop here anymore.”

Another effect—Teresa felt good, momentarily. She got a quick ego boost by demonstrating her superiority; she knew the answer, she chose not to share it with Kallie, and also chose to show everyone that she is in charge.

The final effect—Kallie is now upset and still doesn’t know what to say to the customer waiting on the phone. She’s thinking that she’s stupid and doubting whether she can ever succeed at a job. Maybe she should give up now; her future looks bleak.

Teresa didn’t intend to belittle Kallie or to cause discomfort for her customer. But, that’s what happened. And the long-term goal—that of having Kallie become competent and confident, is now farther away rather than closer.

Now, Teresa could argue that she did nothing wrong. How else will Kallie learn not to interrupt?

But what has Kallie actually learned? That she can’t trust her boss to not humiliate her. Will that help reach the goal?

Others can neither make us happy nor make us unhappy. Thus, Teresa’s harshness didn’t “make” Kallie unhappy. However, given the context of Kallie’s youth and vulnerability, Teresa’s action had an effect on Kallie, even if it was unintended.

Whether you’re in charge or just living your everyday life, it can be easy to forget the impact of even a momentary lapse of courtesy. What helps? Keep your big goals in mind.

Do you observe unintended effects (positive or negative) in your interactions?

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