The Toilet Paper on Shoe Theorem

A few years back I enrolled and completed SMU’s Cox Executive Education Leadership Certification. Course work included a hefty mix of management and leadership skill training. One of the lessons I termed “The Toilet Paper on Shoe Theorem”. This lesson was focused on managing difficult conversations and ‘how best to’ approach such experiences.

The theorem is simple- say you’re at work and you notice a colleague walking out of the restroom with a piece of toilet paper on their shoe. Do you:  (a) say pronto, “Sara you have a piece of toilet paper on your shoe” and proceed to step on it or otherwise assist Sara to remove it, or (b) later in the day say, “Sara you had a piece of toilet paper on your shoe earlier today and I wanted to let you know.” Seems obvious which one you’d choose, right?

The same is true for difficult business conversations. The answer is ‘a’- address the situation and in the soonest manner. Choosing the ‘say pronto’ approach creates good-will at the office. Choosing the ‘later’ approach does not create good-will, but rather can create a ‘why didn’t you tell me earlier’ response. Difficult conversations are … difficult. The Toilet Paper on the Shoe Theorem assists in guiding timing of such conversations. Sooner is always better.