When to Confront Someone: The Rule of Three

“Should I bother to have the conversation with her? What do you think?” Mike*, a marketing director, was telling me about Anne, one of his employees, who had done a few things to frustrate him. She arrived late to a meeting with a client. Not that late – only ten minutes — still, it didn’t look good.

Then, a few days later, she was supposed to email him some information by 4pm and didn’t do it until 6pm. I know, he told me, not a big deal. He didn’t really need it until the next morning. Still.

And then this morning he received a voicemail from her saying she wouldn’t be able to make the conference call they had planned with a colleague in another office. The call was an internal matter. Nothing time sensitive. But she didn’t give him a reason and that bothered Mike.

“None of these things are a big deal,” Mike told me, “And she’s a great employee. But I’m annoyed. Should I say something or shrug it off?”

I have a rule for dealing with these types of situations — times when I’m not sure if it’s worth raising an issue. I need a rule because it’s often hard to know if something’s a big enough deal to address until it’s too late and then, well, it’s too late. It’s already gotten out of hand. On the other hand if I jump on every single issue the first time it comes up then, well, I’ll be out of hand.

The first time someone does something that makes me feel uncomfortable, I notice it. The second time, I acknowledge that the first time was not an isolated event or an accident but a potential pattern and I begin to observe more closely and plan my response. The third time? The third time I always speak to the person about it. I call it my rule of three.

If someone makes a joke about my consulting rates — maybe they say something like, “well, with rates like those, it’s a good thing you add value (chuckle, chuckle).” I might laugh along with them but I notice my discomfort. The second time I smile but don’t laugh. The third time I say “This is the third time you’ve joked about my rates — I know it’s a joke but I also wonder if you feel like they exceed my value. If so, I’d like to talk about it with you.”

If you come late to a meeting once, I notice. Three times? I bring it up.

The first time you demonstrate a lack of teamwork, I notice. The third time? I need to better understand your commitment to the group.

I always say some version of, “I’ve noticed something three times and I want to discuss it with you.” That way we both know it’s a trend.

Is it OK to talk to them about it the first time? Sure. You don’t have to wait. But everyone slips once or twice. Just don’t let it go three times without having a conversation. Three is a good rule of thumb because it allows you to act with confidence that it’s not all in your head. And in these situations, confidence is critical to your ability to speak with authority.

“So,” Mike said to me after I explained my rule of three, “are you saying I should talk to her about it?”

“I can’t help but notice you’ve asked me that same question three times,” I said.
“What do you think?”

*Names have been changed.