When bad work happens to good people

Here’s a popular conversation among upholsterers: “I hate low quality work. It makes us all look bad.”

Okay. I agree.

Most consumers are so unfamiliar with professional upholstery that one terrible experience may form their entire world view. IF they choose to reupholster again, they’ll be jaded and slower to trust.

But this is an opportunity to collectively ask some better questions.

WHY DID THIS HAPPEN? WHAT SHOULD WE DO?

It’s very tempting to pick easy answers: People have no professional integrity. They’re scheisters and crooks and frauds who don’t care about doing bad work.

And we should shame them!!!

But. . . really????

First, let me put a stake deep in the ground:

I believe most people WANT to do good work.

Why would anyone set out to be a terrible upholsterer?? Negative client interactions are the WORST. Getting shredded on social media is no picnic either.

Are there some people who don’t care? Probably. But they’re the exception.

If we shift our mindset to the possibility that people TRIED to do good work, now we have to ask: WHAT WENT WRONG?

Lack of access to training. Lack of access to networking. Isolation. Overwhelm. Lack of access to mentors. Lack of access to helpful critical feedback.

(NOT the same thing as online strangers saying you suck, by the way)

Perhaps they haven’t seen many great role models to emulate – our trade is notoriously underground, after all.

When bad work happens, it often happens to good people.

People who are doing the best they can with what they have. People who may have stumbled sideways into their career while pursuing a hobby. People who were already fighting self-doubt before you even showed up to their party.

And what’s the LEAST helpful thing you can do for a person like that?

Shame them.

The problem with shame is that it generally DISCOURAGES people from reaching out, asking for help, showing their work, taking the creative risks associated with growth.

Nobody improves hiding under a rock.

If we’re REALLY TRULY concerned about low quality work, we need to rethink our approach.

Some simple things that may ACTUALLY help:

  • #1 Show your own work. TALK ABOUT IT. Be an example of what good craftsmanship is. Give up-and-comers something to emulate -If we aren’t a visible example of what a good professional IS, what a good professional DOES, then others will represent for us. WE HAVE TO SHOW UP.
  • #2. Support education. Am I asking you to stop everything and put up classes? No. Education is a huge commitment – teach if you feel called to do so, and if you can successfully balance it in your work and home life.

    I’m asking you to embrace the need for education with your mind, your heart and your words.

    I’m continually surprised by professionals who actively oppose education. People who don’t want to “give away their secrets.” or have someone “steal their clients.”

    AHHHHH, NOW we’re getting down to it!!!!!

    The problem with low quality work is that you don’t get to tell people to stop. It’s a free market. People get to do upholstery with or without your blessing.

    And they will.

    We don’t get to stop them. But MAYBE we can help them.

    Are you willing to support the advancement of other professionals? Because that’s the remedy for low-quality work.
  • #3. Create relationships and communities where people can ask for help.

    As an educator, I can tell you that the most valuable take away in many classes is a positive peer group. I’ve been the lead instructor in many classes where I did very little besides stand back and let students talk through problems together. As they gain access to a supportive think-tank, the education they’re missing becomes much less of a hindrance.

    There is a continued need for education, but a peer group heals many ills, and it doesn’t necessarily need an instructor. It might not even need a classroom – with the explosion of social media and the internet, we can build peer groups with people we’ve never met.

    Where healthy networking exists, people improve.

A couple other “better questions” worth asking . . .

When I see low quality work, I often wonder, “where is the competition?”

It’s a free market – we can’t just outlaw low quality work, but we CAN compete with it. Shouldn’t that be enough?

If you sell a terrible pizza or a terrible haircut, you probably won’t be doing so for long.

Probable answers:

#1. There ARE no better competitors. They simply aren’t there. When consumers look for a professional upholsterer, they can’t find any. And the work goes to whoever shows up. Can we support that person in improving? Or get some better candidates in the field? Maybe both? (Notice how this AGAIN circles back to supporting other professionals?)

#2. There ARE better competitors . . . but they’re invisible. Many good professionals hide. Once they have a referral network, goodbye marketing! And we can all understand why. But if we are hiding from the public, we can’t be surprised when the public finds someone else. And if we have enough work? Maybe we NEED the public to find someone else. And maybe we should see that someone as an ally to support instead of a threat to destroy.

#3. There ARE better competitors . . . but clients aren’t excited to work with them. They have no social media presence. A blah website. No marketing skills. Clients do not spend on upholstery skill alone – in fact, good service and digital marketing are non-negotiable for many, if not most, modern consumers. You can be great at upholstery and still get spanked by the newbie down the road – and maybe that newbie is getting some important things right. If you’re losing work to someone “less qualified” you might want to evaluate your own business instead of theirs. I’ve often competed against more experienced neighbors who were gruff and unpleasant with clients. Guess who got the job?

Should we be pulling skills up? YES. Should we also acknowledge that the market favors other factors?? ALSO YES.

When bad work happens, it isn’t good.

But I beg you to step back and ask a better question.

For literally decades, we’ve opted out of the very things that would help people improve: Education. Networking. Shared resources. Visibility. Engagement. We’ve lost resource after resource and instead of stepping in, we stepped to the side to throw stones.

Frankly, how is ANYONE doing good work right now? Acquiring skills and knowledge in today’s scant (and sometimes hostile) market requires a herculean combination of resourcefulness and resilience.

I think we’d do better to throw ropes than stones.

Finally, let me say this:

If you want to see high quality work, if you REALLY DO, consider ways to pull up. Join the NUA. Look into teaching. Organize a local meet-up. Befriend an aspiring professional and lay the foundation for meaningful constructive criticism – the person who reaches out for feedback is infinitely more receptive than the person who receives it unsolicited.

If all you REALLY want to do is humiliate people online, just stop. ESPECIALLY stop pretending that it’s about “helping” – if the only “help” you can offer is public, online criticism, then do everyone a favor and keep it.

Because it isn’t helping anybody.


*for an excellent perspective on the effect of negative people in our work environments, check out this recent episode of WorkLife with Adam Grant: The Office Without A**holes – The detrimental impact of malice and aggression in the workplace is documented and significant – and we can’t afford any more of it. For most of us, a large part of our “workplace” is the internet – an incredibly tricky environment to control. Suddenly, we can attract feedback from around the world, from people we’ve never even met, some of who have NO interest in seeing us succeed. But perhaps if enough of us refuse to partake and condone, we can focus on REAL solutions for supporting high quality craftsmanship. . .

For more on the benefits of vulnerability and the impact of shame, check out Brene Brown’s book: Daring Greatly

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