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Mike Figliuolo


Rabid Ferrets in the Corner... Give Them an Out

There are ways to defuse events simply by adopting the right mindset

Published: Tuesday, October 3, 2023 - 11:03

Stupid stuff is going to happen. Expect it. It’s part of our complex and highly interdependent world. People will make mistakes. A lot of them. Layer on top of that some incredibly politically charged cultures (for more on that subject see “Hot Heads and Karma”), and there’s an abundance of potentially bad outcomes.

There will be times where stupid stuff will happen to you (and yes, there are times you will do stupid stuff—accept it as axiomatic). When really stupid stuff happens, it can feel like others are conspiring against you. It can seem like a plot of Oliver Stone proportions. During those situations, the outcomes are mostly binary: You defuse the situation or it blows up, sometimes causing irreparable harm to your career or reputation. You may even have an urge to attack the responsible individual. Doing so can create a situation like backing a rabid ferret into a corner. When you create that dynamic, they’re most likely to attack back—and rabid ferrets can be nasty!

There are ways to defuse these events simply by adopting the right mindset.

When you’re facing that little fang-baring, whirling, devil-spawned critter, give it an out. Create a way for it to gracefully exit the situation without a full-on conflict. They want a fight as little as you do.

Allow me to provide an example. I had responsibility for a team, and we had downsized a portion of it. When we did so, a very high-potential manager who used to run the team was a little upset because his sphere of influence felt diminished. Despite putting him in a new role with a ton of expansion opportunities, he continued to dwell on what he had lost rather than what he had gained from an opportunity standpoint.

About a month later, I learned of a meeting between this manager and a colleague of mine during which they were going to discuss moving the manager and his remaining team over to my colleague’s organization. I wasn’t invited to the meeting. Worse, I learned about it by overhearing a hallway conversation. To understand how bent this got me, read my views on stealing talent from another manager.

Needless to say, I felt like getting out my ferret-kicking boots. It was frustrating to feel abandoned by my team member and stabbed in the back by my colleague.

Cornering the wrong person at the wrong time is behavior that can come back to bite you.

As I caught my breath, I realized there was probably no malice intended. They probably just wanted to explore opportunities. Or they bumped into each other in the hall, got to talking, and the idea arose to work together. They might have gotten so excited that they forgot to invite me. Whatever the reason, maybe there was a good one for the meeting other than wanting to deliberately exclude me from the process. So I gave them an out.

I “bumped into” my colleague and asked how things were going. The response was “everything’s great!” Clearly, he still seemed to like me, and there were no weird vibes. So I asked. Directly. It’s wasteful to beat around the bush. I said, “I heard you’re meeting with Billy later. What are you guys covering?”

“We’re talking about moving some of his work over to my group. I think there are some cool opportunities for him if members of his team work with mine.”

“Would you like me to attend?”

“Of course! Why do you ask?”

“Oh, OK. I didn’t see the meeting invite.”

“Oh. Wow. I’m sorry. I must have spaced out. I thought I had you on the original invite when I sent it. I was wondering why you never accepted the meeting request.”

Now, whether this was true or not was irrelevant. Maybe I accidentally deleted the invite. Maybe he did truly make an error in Outlook. Maybe he was deliberately excluding me and trying to steal my talent. I have no idea, nor do I care. The issue was resolved because I gave him an out. I gave him a chance to defuse the situation and get us back on a healthy path.

Had I gone in there like the Thing, screaming, “It’s clobberin’ time!” I would have created a very uncomfortable situation for all of us. Heck, I might have even ruined a friendship and an up-to-then solid business relationship. But that didn’t happen because I gave him an out if he happened to be on the wrong side of the line in this case.

Before attacking a ferret in the corner, give it an out. The value of the avoided conflict can be tremendous (and nobody likes getting stitches and rabies shots).

Published Sept. 6, 2023, in thoughtLEADERS Brief on LinkedIn.


About The Author

Mike Figliuolo’s picture

Mike Figliuolo

Mike Figliuolo is the author of The Elegant Pitch (Weiser, 2016) and One Piece of Paper (Jossey-Bass, 2011), and co-author of Lead Inside the Box (Weiser, 2015). He’s also the managing director of thoughtLEADERS LLC, a leadership development training firm. He regularly writes about leadership on the thoughtLEADERS Blog.