Burning Bridges In Business

I’m cursed with this incredibly hard to control desire to tell people what I really think when they cross me.  When I was younger and just starting out in my career it got me in trouble a few times because frankly I just didn’t have the seniority or respect to pull it off – I came off looking like a jerk.

As I got a bit older, I quickly learned how to pretty much control the filter between my brain and my mouth so that I didn’t say things I’d later regret to the wrong people.  It took a fair bit of self-control at times – this one time at work when I was in my mid-20s, one of my staff (Adam) in Adelaide had lost our entire Lotus Notes environment for the office because he didn’t get a failed disk replaced and then a second one failed.  He compounded that laziness and stupidity with general incompetence when he told us his backups had been failing as well.

That was a classic case where I normally would have explained to Adam with colourful language that his dull-wittedness had resulted in lost data for sure and probably some severe consequences for him professionally.  Instead, I bit my tongue, told him that we needed to focus on the recovery and we’d figure out how to handle the fallout when it was all sorted.

My manager at the time even made a point of saying how surprised he was that I’d not shared with Adam what I was really thinking.

Once the problem was resolved, we did our post-mortem and Adam knew he was finished – he offered to resign, the National IT Director accepted and he left.

A few years later, I was at a different job and was having a monster problem in Adelaide that our suppliers couldn’t or wouldn’t resolve.  I didn’t hold my tongue with them and I let fly with just exactly what I thought of them and their performance.  They escalated the problem to their senior support manager…

You guessed it, it was Adam.

Within moments of speaking to him, he had escalated the problem to their regional team, was getting their spare parts supplier to expedite the part to our site and had signed off on the out of hours work order to fix our problem.

I didn’t burn a bridge a few years earlier when it would have been easy and then one day a few years later, that relationship came in handy.

Learning how to not burn bridges has been a critical skill for me… And I absolutely do consider it a skill that I’ve had to develop.  My initial inclination is to always be blunt and I have a fairly solid grasp of the English language, so sometimes I can put words together in ways that are quite biting.  I’ve had to learn to sometimes keep that in check.

In my own businesses, this pays off over and over again.  There have been more clients than I can shake a stick at over the years that I would have liked to cut loose, but I hung in there with them and helped them even when they probably didn’t deserve it.  I’ve had suppliers and business partners who’ve not always acted fairly and I’ve let things slide.

The key to this is thinking big picture.  When given an opportunity to burn someone, even when it’s justified, it sometimes makes sense to give them a pass.  You never know when you’ll be travelling down a road, come to a ravine and realize that the bridge you need to cross is one you refused to burn awhile back.

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