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Three Envelopes April 20, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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According to the apocryphal story, a person is hired to replace someone who was fired for poor performance.  Excited about his new job, he arrives in the recently vacated office to find the desk empty except for three envelopes left there by the now-departed predecessor.  Numbered 1, 2, and 3, a short note explains that they are to be opened only when the owner has really messed things up at work.  Our new hire sticks them in a drawer and forgets about them.

That is, until six months later, when he really messes things up.  Facing a tough situation, he remembers the envelopes.  He tears open envelope #1 to find a slip of paper that reads, “Blame your predecessor.”  Perfect!  He concocts a story that pins the problems on the previous employee and deftly sidesteps blame for the issue.

Another six months go by, and again our friend is in trouble.  This time, the envelopes are fresh in his mind, so he opens #2.  “Blame your coworkers,” it advises.  He does, and once again avoids taking the fall for a problem he caused.

It should come as no surprise that six months later, he’s in trouble again.  Fortunately, there is still another envelope.  He opens number 3, to find one last bit of advice: “Prepare three envelopes.”

A person’s character can be neatly judged when we see how they handle mistakes.  We are all human; we all fail.  When confronted with that failure, our next move paints a picture of how we handle responsibility and blame.  Do you step up and own the problem, or do you reach for an envelope?

Good people step up.  They acknowledge the problem, accept the blame, and work doubly hard to correct the problem.  It is a sad commentary on our world today that most people are pleasantly surprised when you do this.  While you may not be able to completely rectify the problem, you will earn some measure of respect by taking ownership of the issue.  The problem may not be fixed, but your character is intact.

Bad people step away.  They look to blame anyone except themselves, and will sacrifice anyone to protect themselves.  Blaming predecessors and coworkers will work for a while, but you will eventually run out of envelopes.  The problems remain, but you will not.  And your character will be irreparably tarnished.

We all have three envelopes available to us, every day.  We’ll all make mistakes at some point.  When that happens, don’t reach for an envelope.  Own it, fix it, and move on.