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No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Have you ever been “punished” for doing something where your intentions were in the right place?  If you are like most of us…it has happened more than a few times over the years.  This is commonly known as …“No Good Deed Goes Unpunished”.  Now…you may be thinking to yourself…that is a negative way to look at things.  I would beg to differ and I often use this phrase to prompt myself (and others) to think about any “unintended consequences” for the good deed you are about to perform. 

Cue the back in time…psychedelic music…. as we explore one such example….

From 2000-2001 I worked as an IT Analyst for a startup airline on the east coast of Canada called CanJet.  On top of my responsibility for supporting the Maintenance reliability and reservation systems, I was also on-call 24x7 to ensure the flight following systems stayed up for as long as planes were in the air.  As the story goes….I got a call from flight operations at about 3am on a dark and stormy night.  It was the heart of winter in Nova Scotia and a blizzard had knocked out the power in the hanger.  The generator had kicked in as designed so they were able to continue to monitor the flights but no one knew how much fuel the generator had or how long the power would be out. 

So…as is my way…..I got up…got in the car and very slowly and carefully made my way out to the airport….a white knuckle drive to say the least.  I arrived without incident and talked to the team – everything was operating just fine.  I called the company who maintained the generator to see if I could get them to service it and top up the fuel but with the storm they were not going to be able to get to us for a few hours.

Since I had done mechanical engineering design on heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) fresh out of university…. I had spent a lot of time on roofs doing equipment inspections…..so I was no rookie.  I bundled myself up….headed for the hatch and climbed the iron ladder to the roof.  The generator was right in the middle of the flat roof and easily accessible…even in the heavy snow and wind.  I made my way around the unit…found the fuel gage and saw that it was about ¾ full.  I came down off the roof…called the company back and asked how long that would last.  They figured about 6 hours so we had plenty of time until we were in trouble.  Job well done…crisis under control…time to see if I could find a cup of coffee at the airport.

As it turns out…I was wrong…it was NOT ok!  The next day, I found myself summoned to the Director of HR’s office where I was delivered a written warning. Even though the company knew I had the best of intentions….it was against company policy to go to the roof without a harness and safety gear.  I tried to explain that at 3:30 in the morning there was no one around to do that and that if the generator had failed we would have to ground the planes at the nearest airport due to our inability to track the flights.  This unexpected diversion by the fleet would have cost us Millions of dollars…not to mention customer dissatisfaction.  On top of that, I had gotten up in the middle of the night to drive in so that I could ensure everything was ok under less than stellar road conditions.  Did my dedication to the company and concern for our business count for nothing?  Apparently it didn’t.  When you violate a policy – it doesn’t matter why you did it or what your intentions were…..your good deed must be punished. 

It was the first time in my career that I had ever received a written warning.  I could not understand or reconcile why I was being punished for going above and beyond the call of duty.  I kept thinking about the other guys on the team who had stayed at home…asleep in their nice warm beds who didn’t (or couldn’t) come into the office like I did.  I thought about if the generator had run out of fuel and the flights grounded – what the disciplinary action would have been?  At the end of the day…even though my feelings were hurt…I came to the conclusion that I was comfortable and confident in my decision.  I was not acting recklessly…I had experience being on roof tops and I knew what I was doing.  If that meant a letter on my file…so be it. Honestly…to this day…I have no regrets and I would do the same thing again.

So…”No Good Deed Goes Unpunished” remains a trigger point for me to pause and ask myself a few questions….

1.        Even though I have the best intentions…what ways could my deed go wrong or be perceived as unwelcome?

2.       Have I communicated my deed or intentions to key stakeholders and understand what concerns they may have that I did not consider?

3.       If I choose to go ahead with the deed – am I willing to live with the outcome and consequences of my actions regardless if it is well received or not?

Even, armed with this knowledge and these questions…I have had a few memorable deeds that have been punished over the years since my CanJet experience.  I am much more self-aware of it but it hasn’t dampened by passion to always try to do the right thing given the information I have.  I am focused on making a difference for the company and the people that surround me.  You have to be ok as you push the envelope that you will not always be perceived as successful.  I would argue that what you learn from these experiences is even more important than if you had been rewarded.

Leadership questions of the week for YOU:  What’s YOUR “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished Story”?  What were the 2-3 things you learned about yourself from that experience that you carry with you today?  What is your coaching or advice to others about doing (or not doing) good deeds?  Do you think that companies have lost sight of embracing employees who go above and beyond in extraordinary circumstances in favor of blindly enforcing policy?  How can these situations be handled better on both sides?  What else would you add to this topic or conversation?

Thanks for reading….and remember…YOU make a difference!

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