Word to the wise: Don't transfer stress up the ladder

How young workers respond to requests from higher-ups can make a world of difference.

I once hosted a client dinner in Beverly Hills, California, along with our company’s president, the leader of a global business unit, and the head of our West Coast operations. It was a small, intimate, and senior-level dinner discussion held in a private room at a luxury hotel.

Two days before the dinner, our West Coast leader sent a note to the young man who was coordinating the event asking him to prepare name tags for all attendees. There was no reply from the junior exec for 24 hours, and then the following email arrived one day before the dinner.

"I just came back from time off and have a ton of deadlines. We don’t have plastic hanging name tags, those would need to be ordered, and there isn’t enough time. I will do my best to attend to them and see what we have. I will keep you posted."

At first, I was stunned. Then I laughed out loud and shook my head. I couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly send that note. I decided it was this poor guy’s first day back at work, he was stressed out, and the request for name tags put him over the edge. So, he responded without thinking and sent a note that basically said he wasn’t sure if he could handle the task.

But, come on. This was an event with the president of the firm flying in from the East Coast to meet with clients. Also, we’re talking about getting name tags printed — not painting the Sistine Chapel.

There was really only one proper response to the request, which was to say: "No problem, I’ll take care of it." The last thing you’d want to do is cast doubt on whether or not the task could be completed, or even worse, throw the problem back in the boss’ lap. The young man had yet to learn a golden rule of organizational life: The giving of stress may only roll downhill. If you try to transfer stress up the ladder, you may well get kicked off the ladder.

It made me think of — and appreciate — a young woman I worked with years ago. I often made last-minute requests that were time consuming, logistically challenging, and sometimes dull and rote. But her response was always the same, regardless of the task: "No worries." I came to rely on her a great deal.

I thought of my own career, and tried to imagine sending a pushback email to one of the CEOs I worked for, something such as, "Sorry boss, just got back from vacation and there’s a ton of stuff that piled up while I was gone, so I’m not really sure I can get this done for you."

We have to accept a request from someone at a senior level is more of a command than an ask. It is of course OK to seek clarification, or discuss the challenges involved, but it’s not advisable to share you’ve got other demands that might take priority over your boss.

The good news is our dinner in Beverly Hills came off without a hitch. Someone dispatched an intern to buy name tags at an office supply store, and we never told the president about the impudent email. And the stressed-out young man kept his job.

But at some point, I’m planning to have a chat with him.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He previously served as CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International.

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