Being Graceful in Ungraceful Situations

Recognition for a task well done can come in many forms ranging from a simple thank you to a raise in base salary or other form of monetary compensation such as a gift certificate. Assuming, of course, that the employer or boss has the intelligence and manners to make the acknowledgement, there is a certain maturity to accepting the acknowledgement. You don't want to act so crass as to give the impression that of course you deserved this for your work, or worse yet curl up your nose if the gift is not suited to your personal taste or, heaven forbid, tacky and cheap. There is a certain maturity to accepting these acknowledgments with class. And sometimes, no matter how graceful you might be, something embarrassing happens to compromise the whole situation. The result, and how it reflects on the recipient and the giver, is not dependant on what transpires but in how you recover.

Face it. In the work world there is so much human interaction that awkward moments are bound to ensue. We are all human after all, not robots, so the occasional mishap is inevitable. Nerves get the better of people in the best of situations. Raise your hand if you have ever stumbled over your words in an interview, blanked on a word or point when giving a presentation, spilled coffee on yourself on a way to meeting, or flat out tripped over your own two feet walking down the hall for no reason at all. See what I mean? There is a bit more at stake when these things happen at reward time.

So when can this happen and what to do? A few illustrations:
The 'thank you' lunch - There is so much opportunity for things to go wrong in this setting between employer and employee that it can be it's own longer topic. My personal experience with this once involved a multiple comedy of errors. I was working on an arbitration with one of the senior partners in the firm, and at the conclusion of the case he wanted to take me to a prestigious private social club for a celebratory thank you lunch. I dressed particularly nice that day in a fitted long jacket, silk scarf, black skirt with a tasteful kick-pleat, and the perfect pointy-toe black high heels. It was a rainy day, and as I arrived at the walkway entering the club my sassy heel caught in the brick walkway and I went face down on the pavement. My purse contents went flying, I scraped my hands bracing the fall, and my skirt split up the back along the seam of the kick-pleat to a less than professional degree. The partner was inside waiting for me!

Recovery was needed, and fast! A kind stranger helped me to my feet, picked up my bag, inquired if I was hurt (no, just embarrassed), and escorted me inside. (Tip #1 - be kind and helpful if you see something like this happen.) Upon entering the club I had no choice but to tell my host what had just happened, at least to explain the scrape. He politely offered me his overcoat to drape over my shoulders to hide the torn skirt, gave me a minute to freshen up in the ladies room, and asked the hostess to seat us near the fireplace convenient to warming up and minimal walking across the room. (Tips #2 and 3 - put the other person at ease by acknowledging the situation and offering a way to minimize the visibility to others.) I am sure the story he told over lunch about inadvertently hitting a judge with a wayward tennis ball was fictitious and intended to humor me, which it did. (Tip #4). Thankfully I knew better than to order the spinach salad. (Tip #5).

The gift - These should be chosen carefully. Unless you know the recipient very well, it is best to stick to something that is broadly acceptable without risking offense. Useful, appropriate, versatile, no expiration date, like an American Express cash certificate fits pretty nicely into this category. Companies often use this for project oriented or spot rewards and are a nice gesture. As a giver however one should resist the temptation to make this a huge production or put people on the spot. A friend of mine received one of these at her workplace for exceptional performance on a sensitive project. The division VP was thrilled with the outcome, and her boss went out of his way with a department e-mail praising her work and the big result she obtained for the company. Very nice. However, when it came time to present her with the reward check, he did it in the hallway with all sorts of people passing by, loudly proclaimed the amount, asked her where she was going to spend it, and gloated about the amount of the check. She was horrified, and appropriately so. It put her on the spot, publicly no less. Worse yet, the amount was quite modest and while she did not want to offend her boss, she also was challenged trying not to hide her surprise when the check was handed to her in front of her peers. My friend was at once honored, flustered, embarrassed, pleased, and caught off guard. What started as a thoughtful and well-earned acknowledgement turned into an awkward moment. It really is not the gift that counts, but avoiding the pitfalls will make the gift count beyond its face monetary value.

To get everyone past the odd interlude and get back on track, a graceful gesture will allow those involved to breathe a sigh of relief and truly enjoy the moment. The best way to disarm others is to put them at ease. Using the tools of humor, manners, and gentleness can go a long way to diffuse many ungraceful moments that occur in the workplace.

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