Can of Worms

Stress can make us do weird things.

Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, 1962.

Do you ever get afraid on client calls?

If you’ve been working in a client-facing role for a while you’d probably tell me that you don’t. Nervous, maybe, on occasion. But not afraid. That would be my answer, too:

➔ When we tripped over a shocking lack of alignment among the client’s leadership team mid-way through the project, I was concerned.

➔ When it became clear that no one really knew if the client had either the expertise or the funding to carry out their Big Idea, I was apprehensive.

➔ When Major New Client’s VP parachuted into our weekly sync, which they had never attended before that day, to make a big out-of-scope demand that would derail the timeline and budget, and we didn’t push back so we could “score some points”, I was annoyed.

But afraid? Feels like too strong a word for it. We’re experienced professionals delivering professional services, after all. We‘re not supposed to scare easily, right?

And yet, from time to time, there’s something that keeps us from having the conversations we know we should be having in order to prevent problems and keep our projects strong. Sometimes, being able to spot a Can of Worms off in the distance isn’t the challenge—doing something meaningful about it is.

Mind you, a lot of things might be in that Can of Worms: losing the deal; eroding the client’s trust in the team’s ability to deliver; goodwill discounts; personal embarrassment; maybe even veiled threats of potential legal action. So, in a word, that Can of Worms is filled with stress. And since stress can make us say and do weird things we know we shouldn’t, it’s useful to look at how we typically respond to stress as a step toward diffusing its power over us.

Fight, flight, freeze, or fawn

Early in my career someone told me there’s a lot to be said about a person who sees danger and decides to run toward it. That really stuck with me, and it embodies a general understanding of how people might respond to a given threat—by either facing things head on (fight) or by removing themselves from the situation altogether (flight).

In client services, most of the time we face things head on, which is typically the ideal response—that’s an interesting idea; here are some trade-offs to consider. Sometimes we flee—that’s an interesting idea; I’ll get back to you. But while Fight and Flight can be reasonable and effective responses depending on the situation, they’re only half the story. Two lesser-known but more troublesome stress responses are Freeze and Fawn:

  • To freeze is to see a Can of Worms and do nothing—that’s an interesting idea… *hopes it dies due to a lack of inertia*. Maybe the problem will go away on its own? Maybe I’m overreacting and it’s not really a problem? There are a lot of ways to rationalize doing nothing, but more often than not, doing nothing only makes the problem worse. Lucky breaks do happen, where situations somehow fix themselves, but luck isn’t a great strategy for managing client expectations.
  • Fawning is telling the client what they want to hear in order to avoid upsetting them—that’s an interesting idea; it’ll be a squeeze but… we can get it done on time. You can’t get something for nothing in projects, so fawning always results in a bad trade-off—swapping a problem now for a problem later, swapping the fear of maybe upsetting a client for the reality of definitely demoralizing your team. Although fawning might make a client happy right now, they’ll certainly be less than happy later when you’re forced to explain why you can’t come through on your promise.

Fawning is insidious, particularly when working with demanding clients who have hard constraints, because it can hide so neatly in our blind spots and general desire for either ourselves or our firm to be liked. But even “easy” client relationships can get to the point where we fawn from time to time and we don’t see it happening until it’s too late.

So how can we improve our stress response when working with clients?

Can openers

The Can of Worms is a wily adversary that demands respect. Unless your projects are all an unbroken boulevard of green lights, having a few go-to techniques for increasing the likelihood of success when trouble’s afoot can be helpful. Here are three that have worked for me:

  • Stop. Breathe. Think. Act. In SCUBA diving you learn that launching yourself into the fray when there’s an emergency is a recipe for disaster. Instead, you need to settle yourself down, take in the situation, and only then step in to help. This is equally applicable when a Can of Worms has been spotted.
  • Flight, then Fight. Would it be better if you could always give the client an authoritative answer on the spot? Sure. Do you have to? No. When a client tells you something that lights up your Spidey senses but you’re unsure of what to do, it can be perfectly reasonable to ask questions, tell them you’ll get back to them (and when), gather your thoughts on your own time, then come back prepared for the next conversation.
  • Introspective retrospective. If addressing the Can of Worms consistently and successfully is a skill you want to master, running a mini retro (by yourself or as a team) can be informative. Asking: “what was the situation, what was my response, what was I most worried about, what should have been my response” can help identify the gap between where you are and where you want to be.

Sometimes even doing a quick “am I fawning?” check after a thorny client interaction can be enough introspection to point you toward a more resilient path for your project.

Facing a Can of Worms takes practice, experience, and courage, but it’s important work that's ultimately in the best interests of your client. Just remember: there’s a lot to be said about a person who sees a Can of Worms and decides to run toward it.