Perhaps this sounds like a strange question to ask yourself but believe me it has helped me avoid many a mistake as a manager and in my personal life.
In any situation or management scenario there are numerous ways to proceed. A range of them are essentially OK. They will eventually get you the result you want, although some will take you longer than others.
On the other hand, there are also things you can do — often without thinking — that will prove counterproductive if not fatal to your intent. These are the words and actions the question “HOW CAN I SCREW THIS UP” allows you to identify before it is too late.
One option we usually have is to engage in some strategic thinking about how we wish to engage a situation before we act. A central element of this thought process should be asking ourselves “what’s the piece I control”. At a minimum, what we control is whether we engage the situation at all, when to engage it, where to engage it, and how. If the answer to the whether to engage question is yes, this is exactly the place to ponder how we might screw things up.
Imagine, for example, you are the new manager of a work unit of 12 individuals, only two of whom you actually know. You begin the new assignment in one week and that gives your new subordinates time to do their homework. Your reputation will precede you. Some of this information may flatter you and some perhaps will not.
You will have a week or two, however, to create your first impressions, most of which will depend on how you behave; that is what you say and do. To the degree that you have some control here, what impressions would you like your behavior to convey and which impressions would you like to avoid?
What I’m suggesting is that you contemplate your game plan by asking yourself not only what you think you should do but also what you absolutely think you do not want to do — the “how could I really screw this thing up” question. Over time, you have probably witnessed enough of these faux pas to quickly construct a short list. Since these unfortunate missteps are often individual habits, it helps to remind yourself about those missteps you have made in the past.
Creating a good initial impression isn’t a science with guaranteed results. But we can exert some influence over how we come across with a little prior planning and thought.
I might add the “how could I screw this up” question” is equally relevant to an upcoming critical conversation in our professional or personal lives. Since the first few sentences of these conversations can have an enormous impact on the outcome, some prior thinking and rehearsal is always advisable.