Managing Conflict With Clients – Don’t Retaliate
This article continues my series on the phenomenon of throwing people under the bus. In the first article my advice was Don’t Throw People Under the Bus. There are usually better ways to stay safe and handle difficult situations. To that point, the second article addressed the topic, How to Avoid Being Thrown Under the Bus. Nevertheless, while prevention is an important element of staying safe, we all find ourselves under the bus at some point in our careers. What do you do if you find yourself there? Specifically, what do you do when your client throws you under the bus?
My Client Threw Me Under the Bus
I remember the first time this happened to me I was a young consultant in my mid-20s working as a Test Manager on a large software development contract. The company I worked for was a subcontractor to the prime, a large systems integration company. Schedules were very tight and we all felt the pressure. It turns out that, to deflect some pressure being applied by our Government client, our prime contractor client told the Government that we were slowing down progress because we didn’t have good test records, and that it was causing them and us rework.
As the Test Manager I was naturally upset to hear that I had been thrown under the bus with some misinformation. Fortunately, our Government client decided to check into it. He called me into his office, at which time I showed him our very complete and detailed test records. He was complimentary and the meeting ended. I was then called into my boss’s boss’s office, as he had heard what happened. I felt vindicated and walked into his office with a big smile. His face, in contrast, was somewhat somber.
He taught me a very important lesson that day. He said to me, “You may have won today, but they are still our client. If we make a big deal out of this it will come back to haunt us. You did the right thing, and didn’t have a choice. But now, let’s let it go, be humble, and get back to work.”
I told him I could live with that. I learned that winning and losing with clients was a very slippery slope. This put me on a career course to always look for the win/win with clients. Here are some suggestions if your client throws you under the bus:
Inform Your Manager
Immediately let your boss know what happened and your side of the situation. Take responsibility for anything you did to contribute to the situation, and refute any misinformation. Remember that a client can have you removed from a project, but can’t fire you from your job. If you have the understanding and support of your manager, you may be reassigned to another client project, but your career and employment should be intact.
Consider with your manager whether it is better to address the claims with the client or just let it go. Keep your ego out of it. What do you and your company have to gain by vindicating yourself, and what do you and your company stand to lose? If your company is supporting you, it is generally less important to refute the claims.
When You Must Clear Yourself
If the best option is to clear your reputation, do it with grace. Don’t go in with a “machine gun” and leave everybody lying on the floor. When they get back up, you will be the target. Instead, present the facts compassionately. Acknowledge how you think the “misunderstanding” could have occurred. Suggest ideas and options to them for how this can be prevented in the future.
Prevent a Repeat
Analyze what made you vulnerable to being thrown under the bus and take steps to prevent it from reoccurring. See our recent article for advice on How to Avoid Being Thrown Under the Bus.
Don’t Throw People Under the Bus
See our article on this topic. Don’t start the bus throwing, and when you are defending yourself from being thrown, avoid throwing others under the bus in retaliation. It just keeps the conflict going, which won’t help anyone in the long run. Instead, speak your truth and seek mutual resolution.
I look forward to your comments and your own experiences with clients throwing you under the bus. Perhaps we can all learn from each other.
If a client has recently thrown you, a co-worker, or your entire team under the bus, it probably indicates the presence of deeper issues. The genesis of these issues is often unintentional and can be addressed once understood. Explore our Conflict Management services to see how we can help you understand and address these root cause issues. Or, contact us for a confidential, no-obligation consultation.