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Photo: Getty Images. Illustration: Maridelis Morales Rosado

It’s Thursday night, 8:39 p.m., you’re unwinding, just got off the sofa and headed to the restroom. You see the iPhone and think, should I or not? Ah, it’s just for a few minutes; why not? Before you open Facebook to see how many people liked your brilliant lunch photo, you think, “Why not check the inbox, just to get ahead of tomorrow.” That’s when you see it. You know, the ALL CAPS email from a major client, and they are SUPER unhappy. As usual, it’s a screw-up by one of your team. Is that a familiar situation for you?

Freeze! Before you forward that email to your employee with all caps “WTF!!” try this SOS technique. It will help you handle situations when you feel an employee dropped the ball.

Apply the SOS technique.

SOS stands for Stop, Oxygenate, and Seek Information. It doesn’t mean “Say the Other person Screwed up.” Developed by EQ expert and Performing Under Pressure author J.P. Pawliw-Fry, the SOS technique helps you get a handle on a situation when you’re stressed. It goes like this.

  1. Stop: Take a moment to step away from the current situation (e.g., walk outside or put the WTF email in a draft folder). 

  2. Oxygenate: Take a deep breath and stretch out your clenched muscles. 

  3. Seek Information: Gather more data, context, and perspective to find out what actually happened, not what you think happened.

Seek information by addressing the three pillars of business.

When a mistake happens in business, it can only be caused by one of the three pillars: processes, systems, or people. Blaming people is easy. We all do it instinctively. Doesn’t it just feel easier to blame another person rather than fix a system or process? Before you write that scorching email to the employee in question, illuminate what’s going on with your business processes and systems. 

Many times, the error was probably due to an inadequate system or process. So if there is a person to blame, it’s probably you–the person who let the faulty system or process continue unfixed in the first place. Mindblowing, right? 

Remember how a couple of minutes ago you were ready to nuke the employee as a business saboteur? I bet you’re glad you didn’t fire off that email in the heat of the moment now.

Fix broken systems and processes.

It’s tempting to ignore a system or process problem because we think it will take too much time to overhaul or cost too much money to install. However, just think how much time and money it’s costing you by not fixing it. Then imagine how spending the time and money will help you avoid all those late-night, irate client emails and accusing blameless employees, making it so much better for all stakeholders.

Talk to the employee.

Employees do screw up. Sometimes, after 100 percent eliminating the possibility that the error was caused by a process or system, you need to address something an employee did. But before you chew them out in person (or over email), give them what you always give yourself–the benefit of the doubt. 

Seek information about the situation by asking yourself questions like: 

  1. Are they overworked?

  2. Is there something going on with them personally?

  3. Were the instructions not clear?

  4. Was the outcome not a SMART goal?

Once you’ve gathered your information, sit on it for a while. Add the information to a list for your next one-on-one meeting. When the meeting comes: 

  • Mention you noticed this area was a challenge for them that you’d like to better understand.
  • Tell them you would like to know how you could support them to overcome this challenge.
  • After you talk it out, ask them how they think the client perceived the error and ask about their own intent versus the impact it had on the client.

Expand your mind. Heck, blow it up. Try this technique the next time you get a late-night email and thank me later.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of