The Emotional Bank Account in Action

As I mentioned in my post The Three Books Every Aspiring Leader Should Read, Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is one of the foundational books all leaders should read. One of the topics discussed in the book is the emotional bank account. When I first read about this topic, it was nothing that really stuck out to me. I originally looked at it as a “I will do you a favor and you can do me a favor latter” kind of concept. I also thought of it as working well with people because you never know when you may need them. While both of these may be true to the concept, it wasn’t until I had a major issue at work did the concept of the emotional bank account really set in for me. It is also a lesson others can learn, without going through it first hand!

The story starts when I was managing a team of people responsible for a large IT application for our company. It is important to note that our customers were internal to the organization as well, so they are people we know personally…especially the executives and other leaders of these customers. We were doing a major update to a part of the application that we had not touched in over three years and the original developer was no longer on our team. We spent a lot of time on this update and had a lot of testing, including peer testing by people not working on the actual update. I was out-of-town at a conference, in a different time zone, when I got a wake-up call from my team about our major update which they just put into production: “Sorry for waking you, but we have a big problem,” the voice on the other side of the line said. The details of the update are really irrelevant, but what is not is the fact that we completely stopped our customers from using this part of the application. I should also mention…it was a critical part of the application. It took us a couple of hours but we were able to troubleshoot the issue and put a short-term solution in place while we worked on a longer term solution. We had a lot of unhappy customers and quite frankly, my team and I were also very unhappy with ourselves because we had higher standards than this.

Not even thinking about the emotional bank account at this time and only thinking about the frustration we just caused, I sent the following email to our top leaders (customers) a week later after we had resolved the lingering issues.

[Items in brackets have original word removed and a generic term used instead.]

All – I am writing this email as a follow-up to the issue that many of you experienced with the [functionality] after our update this past Thursday. Although we strive to deliver a product that is of high quality, is well-tested, and built to your specifications, sometimes things happen where we don’t deliver to those standards. For the inconvenience this release has caused, we apologize.

Before I get into our root cause analysis and what we are doing to improve our process to ensure a better product for you and your staff, I did want to specifically call out our great team (CCed) because many of them were involved in the identification of our workaround solution and root cause analysis efforts to improve our development process. We actually had people in two different states, two different countries, people in the office and people working from home, all who within minutes of reported issues were on conference calls and [instant messenger] meetings to troubleshoot. Everyone was willing to do this because we have these high standards for ourselves and our product.

After a root-cause analysis on the issue we have discovered two flaws in our design and testing process that we will be changing to ensure a more complete product release in the future. Issue 1: Although the release was well-tested by several people for new [situations], our process failed to identify what would happen when our new build was used to complete documentation for an existing [situation]. We will be creating and documenting testing standards as part of a standard checklist that will ensure that our testing process includes workflows that may span multiple days, such as the creation of a [functionality]. Issue 2: We discovered a technical issue with how [the coding functionality] works on our design side. We have discovered a way that we can create “versions” of the [functionality] so that existing [documents] will continue to use the old form while new [documents] will see the new form. We will be documenting this process for us to follow with future [functionality] updates to ensure this issue of existing [documents] needing to be deleted, will not happen again. We have submitted an issue ticket with [the vendor] to address the flaw in their program that does not proactively create these “versions” for us like it is supposed to be doing.

Again, we are very sorry for the inconvenience this release caused and for any delays [in your workflow] that came from this flaw. I hope this email explains our improvement efforts to ensure we continue to provide the level of quality that you expect, and we expect, for the design and release of the [application]. If you have any questions or concerns about this, please do not hesitate to contact me.

I didn’t know what I was going to get in response. Part of me thought that people would not read the email or at least not even respond given their anger and frustration. What happened next though blew my mind. Within the first 30 minutes of the email going out, I received emails from the top three highest ranking leaders on the email, all of which had nothing but positive things to say. I received in total around fifteen responses (about a 75% response rate), all of which were nothing but positive. The people who originally contacted us very upset were telling us that it was OK and “things happen.”

I also received a lot of positive feedback about our transparency and our process-focused improvement efforts. It was at this time I realized a few things about the emotional bank account that I didn’t realize when I first read the book:

  1. All the hard work my team and I did for our customers leading up to this error had been filling the bank account…a lot. While our update caused major problems for them, the bank account was so full, this issue didn’t offset all the positives from the past.
  2. People respect you when you can admit you made a mistake…proactively, not reactively after being pushed to apologize or admit wrong-doing.
  3. People understand mistakes happen and value continuous improvement and making sure the same mistakes do not happen again in the future.

After all of these responses, it was my boss who helped me connect the dots with the emotional bank account. After she helped me with this aha moment, I ended up using this story for the whole department as I worked on a large initiative to create improvements in our design and release processes with a greater focus on quality releases. I met with the person who was technically responsible for this build and we agreed that we would use this as a lesson for the department. It was important for me and our leadership team that we use this as an example to show how our work can directly impact our customers and also to show that people make mistakes and we can all learn from them to improve our quality. 

Hopefully you can learn from our mistake and the importance of the emotional bank account so you don’t have to go through the same thing. If you have gone through it, what is your story? I would love to hear about it and how you used it to learn and grow.




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