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Diplomatic correction of "official" version of events--how?
January 25, 2013 7:19 PM   Subscribe

I am going to be present at a meeting in which a group of us will be asked to make a decision based on a document with misleading information in it. I would like some advice on how to present the correct version of events without being insubordinate or seeming to call my higher-ups liars.

I am part of a group who will be asked to make a confidential decision regarding a particular situation. We all received a document from a senior official outlining the history of the situation. On this committee, I represent a specific group of stakeholders, and I will have a vote. On reading the document ahead of time, I see a description of what happened that glosses over certain aspects of the situation and, in one case, attributes actions to one group of stakeholders that actually should be attributed to another group. I have witnesses and proof, but because this is a closed meeting, the witnesses aren't supposed to know that the discussion or vote is happening, and they are not allowed to attend in any case. So the evidence to the contrary would basically be me saying, "This is not true and I have people who will back me up...who aren't allowed to be present right now."

The briefing document will be the only familiarity that the majority of the committee has with the situation, and it will inform how they vote. The majority of them are external to my organization, but they provide oversight.

I need to correct the version of events, but I need advice on how to do it diplomatically, as the people who wrote the document are my superiors (and they will be present at this meeting). They are not my direct supervisors, but they are senior to me. I have some power and authority at my job, but not compared to the people who wrote the document. I think that the committee on the whole respects me and my point of view--I am viewed as quite reliable and credible as an individual. However, the stakeholder group I represent is sometimes seen as a "special interest group," and in general, the most credibility is granted to the senior officials without much questioning. (I am basing this on my observations during past meetings.)

How do I raise this issue diplomatically? How do I provide a correction to the events without creating a shitstorm (if this is possible), and without being able to immediately produce witnesses to back me up? NOTE: I cannot acquire a written copy of this evidence ahead of time, because the topic of this meeting is confidential and I cannot tell the witnesses that it is happening.

How do I do this without looking like I am calling my higher-ups a bunch of liars?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Write now to the people who wrote the document setting out your concerns about the accuracy of the document. Be careful not to attribute any ill-will to them - try not to put them on the defensive. But make clear that you think it would be a good idea to correct the document before the meeting, based on the information that you understand they are just now receiving for the first time.
posted by Dasein at 7:30 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

The best way to handle a correction like this is to do it privately. I would drop the author of the document a line and say something like "this section was unclear and I wanted to make sure I understood it. My information is that group x did this stuff, not group y - we don't want this to be confusing for the committee" or something along those lines.

The basic rule of this sort of communication is to allow the other party to save face if at all possible - in this case, you'd want to either suggest that your confusion/misunderstanding is the problem, or that they should have had information that you possess and it's not their fault they didn't (or similar circumlocution depending on the exact circumstances.) That lets the other person fix it without feeling attacked or blamed.
posted by restless_nomad at 7:33 PM on January 25, 2013 [9 favorites]

First, consider whether you think this senior official is slanting the history to promote an agenda. If that is the case you must, obviously, tread carefully. If, on the other hand, it is more likely that they are presenting a summation either based on the reports of others and/or prepared by subordinates, I would try to present the "correct" history from your personal observations and/or direct involvement. If you are only privy to reports of others, realize that your information may also be somewhat biased or not any more accurate.

If you have first hand information which differs, I would present it as an addendum to the materials already furnished. The suggestion to first present it to the original reporter is a good one.
posted by uncaken at 7:37 PM on January 25, 2013

Would it be too obvious to get a written witness statement ahead of time that covers the point in question? That way you have the witnesses backing you up in the room right there, but at the same time the witnesses are not present and do not know anything about the meeting or anything about the "official" version of events.

Even if you can't use such a statement directly in the meeting, it might be prudent to have it on hand ASAP no-matter what you end up doing. Unless this opens you to legal vulnerability...
posted by anonymisc at 7:38 PM on January 25, 2013

A witness statement could also allow you to present it as "Some of my stakeholders prepared an outline/history for me a few days ago, it describes the same stuff as what is summarized here, but there is a point where it brings in some additional information - I'd like us to double check that we don't end up overlooking any of that, or if it slipped though, reconcile it into our history."

[You know better than I whether that would rock the boat or get the job done. The main idea is to pass the buck - you've been handed this alternative history and you're just trying to dot your i's and cross your t's]
posted by anonymisc at 7:56 PM on January 25, 2013

This question is phrased as a diplomacy, almost etiquette question, but it's a question best answered via a fuller political / power analysis: what's going on, who's pushing it, what is your position in the group, how much support do you have, and so forth. This probably isn't about whether or not people believe you; it's about who wins and who loses if that version of events is accepted, and whether by making a comment you'd be stepping onto a battlefield where you're massively outgunned or where you could be killed in the crossfire of a bigger battle.

Knowing very little, I offer this as the rule of thumb -- nine times out of ten, if it's your boss, you should be on the same team. So if you don't like the decisions, you should advocate privately with that person, and ultimately yield to them.
posted by salvia at 8:04 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

The OP states that while the document-preparers are senior to her/him, they are not his/her supervisors -- so, not his/her boss.

Here's what information the OP gives us about whose team s/he should be on: his/her role on this committee is to represent a specific group of stakeholders.

The OP's account allows us to imagine, but does not directly state, that the document-preparing team may be accidentally or willfully opposing the interests of the group the OP represents.
posted by feral_goldfish at 8:54 PM on January 25, 2013

It sounds like the place to start is your direct supervisor (not the people who are "senior to you" that will be in the meeting). Bring your concerns to them and see what can be done on speaking to these people. You want to do everything you can to correct the problem BEFORE the meeting, especially if it's due to poor communication within your organization. If poor communication comes out during the meeting, every one will look bad, including you.

Most likely the briefing document was prepared by someone junior to these people and they did not have the proper info to correct it. (though you might know the case to be otherwise)

If handled appropriately, you should have ample opportunity to explain how you know the information to be inaccurate, unless, as has been noted, the senior people have an agenda.

Also, and this is a but if a derail from your question...but are you confident you don't have a conflict of interest in this vote? You said you're representing a group of stakeholders, but it sounds like you're employed by another body. Does this body (ie the people senior to you) also have a vote? If so, have you been advised of your duties in how you make your vote? Just something for you to think about.
posted by dry white toast at 9:02 PM on January 25, 2013

I like the idea of Dasein and restless_nomad's tactful backstage work, but am wondering whether such a strategy might backfire in this particular case. If for example the document-preparers have been willfully and antagonistically deceptive, and are not intimidated by the OP's warning, the warning might simply give them time to prepare a counter-attack on the OP's credibility. I have no idea whether such a level of paranoia is warranted in this situation. If it is unwarranted, then the backstage tactful approach sounds smart to me.

Another option might be to distribute your correction as if it were a kind of addendum to the report. (This assumes you have the contact information of the other committee members.) In this case, you use the same tactful language that assumes no deliberate deception has taken place -- if the committee members are sufficiently diligent and sharp, you may not even need to point out that your addendum conflicts with the original document. If the recipients want more evidence, they will hopefully have enough lead time before the meeting to figure out how to obtain such evidence (e.g. by lifting confidentiality restrictions, or by interviewing your witnesses outside the meeting).

Or maybe they won't bother. I have some power and authority at my job, but not compared to the people who wrote the document. It's possible there is no foolproof plan, and all you can do is do the best you can with such power and authority as you have been afforded.
posted by feral_goldfish at 9:15 PM on January 25, 2013

I would take care of this before the meeting, being as pushy-polite as I needed to be to get my point of view out there and not an ounce more. Everyone is pretty much going to have decided how they vote before the meeting so you need to correct this during this review period, ideally asap.

Definitely do not let it slide now and then pull a Matlock during the meeting, everyone will be pissed at you then, not just the people who wrote the report.
posted by fshgrl at 9:55 PM on January 25, 2013

Play the game. The document is your God. This doesn't sound like the hill you should die on (you haven't mentioned the downsides for anyone involved - I'm assuming they are therefore minimal). Being right doesn't make the unemployment line run any faster.
posted by Yowser at 10:21 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I too think you're not telling us enough to give you prudent advice. In addition to what others have raised, what are the stakes of this confidential decision? What are the legal and financial consequences? Even if there are no legal consequences, is a professional organization involved?

On the face of what you have told us, I don't think you have much ground to effectively challenge your superiors' view. You represent a special interest group with a stake in the matter, you are voting on their behalf and presumably, the majority of the committee shares little professional rapport with you. I think the burden of disabusing any doubts of conflict of interest and preventing your superiors from throwing their weight against yours is too much.

Would your goals be satisfied by making a qualifying statement like "As representative of the XYZ group of stakeholders, I have carefully reviewed this report on their behalf. Unfortunately, we disagree with sections 5, 6 and 9 of the report and we disassociate from the conclusion of this report. We strongly urge the committee to consult Jane Doe and John Smith of the DEF department for their expertise on this matter."

Ask yourself: so what if you are right and you present the "true version" of events to the committee. What effect are you hoping for?
posted by tksh at 11:01 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Like restless_nomad et. al., I would recommend dealing with it privately--but on the record--before the meeting. It would also be a good idea to keep your supervisor in the loop, and get his or her advice on how they want to deal with it. Perhaps they will suggest that they should be the ones to follow up with the originators if they are closer to peer-level.

I also agree with the idea of presenting your information in as non-threatening an manner as possible, and acting as if you assume that there was a mistake or a misunderstanding rather than a deliberate misrepresentation (even if you are pretty sure the latter is the case). The idea is to give everyone a face-saving way to correct the record.

But, the bottom line is that you do have to deal with it, since otherwise you are not meeting your responsibilities to advocate for your particular stakeholders. You might not be able to change things if there is a political/power game afoot, but you will have done your best.

Good luck!
posted by rpfields at 2:54 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Agreed with everyone about doing it privately, beforehand, allowing for the possibility of miscommunication.

Assuming you're on the committee due to honest concert about the interests of the group you represent: Will your group of stakeholders feel wronged if the group decides based on the information in the document? Could their level of commitment to the larger organization suffer as a result? If so, that seems like a legitimate concern that if I were the decision-maker, I would want to take into account. You might want to present it as such - not as a threat that your group will have its revenge but one of many concerns that should be included in the committee's calculations.

If you are unable to correct this beforehand, continue to de-personalize the issue when in the meeting. You are the messenger, the representative of this group of stakeholders. So present yourself as working on solving a problem with your fellow team members. You might make everyone aware of the issue without accusing anyone of lying by saying something like: "In the group that I represent, the widespread understanding of the situation is (your version of events) rather than (the document's version). This group of stakeholders will be surprised and disappointed if we make a decision based on this other version of the facts. If we do so, we will need to think carefully about our message explaining the decision to them." That at least puts on the table the difference of opinion about the facts, phrased as a forward-looking, problem-solving contribution.
posted by Pseudonaut at 4:31 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yikes - I've been in very similar situations twice during the last decade, and my first advice would be: if you can, let it go. This is a situation you cannot win.
I went ahead then because I had huge emotional investments in both cases, and I sort-of won in the end both times. But the whole thing has hurt my career badly, and I'd never do it again.

Even the people who agreed with me, and who's case I was defending, urged me to let it be. If people in power for some reason want to push some agenda, they have all the means to take you down if you go against that agenda. No matter who you are. A friend of mine who was in a very high position got fired for trying to speak reason with a higher-up with a hopeless agenda.
posted by mumimor at 8:33 AM on January 26, 2013

I think you need to figure out a few things before deciding on a plan of action:

1) Can anything you do change the outcome at all? In most fields, committees exist to add pseudo-democratic legitimacy to decisions that have already been made by senior management as well as giving more junior folks on the committee a sense of ownership in the decision. If that's the case, the document was written to support the decision, most committee members won't read it, and there's no real point in changing it.

2) Can you change the outcome in a worthwhile and non-temporary way? Do you have a plan to get the votes you need before you walk in the room for the vote? Will the vote stick next month/year? Will the vote stick even if you're fired? (You don't want that to be the easy way for senior management to get what they want.)

3) Is the damage to your interests (including those of the group you represent) of this decision significant? Demanding "justice" for everyone feels good, but it's usually a waste if the decision has been made and can be misguided. For example, in many businesses it's common for a person to be fired for what seem like ticky-tack reasons -- especially since the fired person talks about the reasons and the business generally won't. It only comes out later that the real reasons were defensible and perhaps extreme.

In concise terms based on the "hill worth dying on" metaphor: Are you on a hill? Can you take and hold the hill? Is it a hill worth taking? If the answer to all three is "yes," you need a plan for victory, which correcting the other side's propaganda might be a part of -- but it would be a small part.
posted by backupjesus at 10:27 AM on January 26, 2013

Yes to what backup jesus and mumimor stated. One additional consideration is that if you know you're going to lose the "hill" and not willing to "die" in the process, maybe you could think about how to sidestep the battle while getting as much as you can for your constituents in exchange. In all cases, you should appeal to undisputed facts and the shared interests of the group you're meeting with.

I'm not sure that your constituents' top priority in exchange for taking the hit would be to have a more correct or less-bad version of history out there. But if it is, then maybe you ask for it while defanging your request by explicitly going along with management's goal.

You: "Yes, the conductors' pay may need to go down. The least we can do is not do that via a document stating that they're not adding value to the company. We've all read the customer surveys showing that friendly conductors are a main cause of repeat visits."

Someone else: "We can't say it's because of financial problems unless we want all our funders to get skittish."

You: "Oh sure, of course not. I understand that. But we don't want the conductors' morale to fall further. Higher turnover last year already increased our payroll costs by 10%, and this pay cut may worsen that. We need to appeal to the conductors for patience, not telegraph that we don't value them and that their pay will never return to earlier levels. Why don't we say we're prioritizing capital investments? That is a true statement."

posted by salvia at 3:16 PM on January 26, 2013

Thinking more, it seems like you believe the committee would make a different decision if they know the truth. Is that truly at all likely to happen? Could management let it happen? (I'm assuming management holds almost all the power here.)

But if you really think you could slow or stop this bad decision by getting the truth out, and that this is a battle worth taking on, then I'd approach the authors privately and in good faith. And then if they fail to correct the memo, also meet privately with a few other committee members to talk about it. They're going to need time to digest the information, and they're going to need to be motivated. Why, of all the dozens of times they've just gone along, is this the time they should resist? (Not just why is it "what's right," but why is it in their self-interest or the best interests of the larger company/group?)

If you do that, you're going to have to be forthright about your disagreement with the memo and say something early in the meeting: "I mentioned this to Manager Mary here already, but there's a different version of this story that I've heard..." If you don't do that, your potential committee allies will either blow your cover anyway ("now, Bob told me a different story than what Mary wrote here. Bob, why don't you tell Mary what you said and let's hear her side") or shrink back upon noticing that even you, who cares so much about this, are too scared to speak up.
posted by salvia at 3:28 PM on January 26, 2013

Sorry, change that last "too scared to speak up" to "choose not to speak up." It's not about courage as much as pragmatism, to me.
posted by salvia at 3:32 PM on January 26, 2013

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