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When You Don't Know What You Don't Know

Erika Petrelli
Erika Petrelli
When You Don't Know What You Don't Know

In the year between graduating from college and returning for grad school, I spend much of my time as a waitress/sometimes assistant-manager at a busy local restaurant.

During one lunch shift that I was managing, we were unusually short on wait-staff.    From my perspective, we had two choices: we could either seat the entire restaurant, knowing that the patrons would have to wait an unacceptably long time for service as the wait-staff scrambled to keep up; or, we could keep one section of the restaurant closed off, which would mean the patrons would have to wait longer to be seated, but would receive swift and attentive service once they did. I confidently chose option “b,” and the lunch shift bustled along, with the wait-staff feeling like they had control of their tables and the customers happy, at least once they got seated. But indeed, the lines to get in were long.

After the lunch shift had settled I was in the kitchen cleaning some things up and feeling pretty good about my decision. Suddenly, the general manager of the restaurant showed up and grabbed my arm tightly, yelling at me loudly in front of everyone who was still there about my decision to keep a section closed during lunch.    After he finished his tirade, I ran off to the bathroom, unable to hide my tears and embarrassment. Apparently, not everyone agreed with me that lunch had gone off without a hitch (and apparently he was a total jerk who had ineffective management techniques, but that’s another story).

Now, did I make the right choice or not? I still honestly have no idea, even nearly 20 years later. The thing that gets me about this one is that I had no idea I had (been perceived to have) done anything wrong. I thought I had done something really right! Really good! Something the manager would be so proud of! And instead he felt exactly the opposite. He felt like I made an absolute mess of things. I think he nearly fired me that day (which in hindsight would have been a gift… just not to my then 20-something-year-old self).

It’s one thing when you know you’ve made a mistake, and just have to figure out how to resolve it.  It’s an entirely different thing when you not only don’t know you’ve made a mistake but you actually actively believe you’ve done the right thing. Has this ever happened to you? You “help” a friend or a family member, feeling so pleased with yourself, only to find out they resent the help or that it wasn’t the help they needed at all. It’s a weird feeling—for me that day in the restaurant left me feeling both defensive at my choice of actions and ashamed at the fact that I had disappointed the manager, and possibly some of the wait-staff who would have liked to make more money that day despite how  busy they would have been. It’s a dual tug—the need to say “Hey, I MEANT to do a good thing!” and the desire to actually do a good thing, in the eyes of those you are trying to help.

So which counts more—my intentions or the way my actual actions are received?  Probably the latter, because it doesn’t matter, in the end, how proud I am of myself if everyone around me is glowering, annoyed, or hurt. We can’t always know in advance, or course, whether we’re doing the “right” thing or the “wrong” thing, but in remembering this story I am reminded of the importance of asking rather than assuming. And also, the importance of letting our defensive egos go when our intended efforts go awry—and simply saying “I’m sorry.”

Is there anything you might not know what you don’t know right now?


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Erika Petrelli

By Erika Petrelli

Erika Petrelli is the Senior Vice President of Leadership Development (and self-declared Minister of Mischief) for The Leadership Program, a New York City-based organization. With a Masters degree in Secondary Education, Erika has been in the field of teaching and training for decades, and has been with The Leadership Program since 1999. There she has the opportunity to nurture the individual leadership spirit in both students and adults across the country, through training, coaching, keynotes, and writing. The legacy Erika strives daily to create is to be the runway upon which others take flight. If you enjoy these blogs, you should check out her interactive journal, On Wings & Whimsy: Finding the Extraordinary Within the Ordinary, now available for sale on Amazon. While her work takes her all around the country, Erika calls Indiana home.