I used ChatGPT to replace a team’s input when they weren’t responding … and now I’m panicking — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I messed up royally. I’m two years in my first full-time role. My job is like in-house consulting. My team is trying to improve our internal processes. We interview people in the process about what they’re struggling with and look for ways to improve it.

I’ve done a lot of these interviews by now, but one of them was like pulling teeth from a lion trying to bite you. The answers they gave were vague and unusable like, “It’s abstract.” When I asked for more details, they’d repeat the same vague answers or say things like, “I could explain, but you wouldn’t understand it.” As we talked in circles, the team became increasingly gruff and dismissive. They’d probably call me pushy or argumentative. I asked for a list of things they would need to give me feedback that wasn’t “it’s abstract” and the list they gave me was wildly out of scope for what my team was doing. At the end, I felt like neither party could accurately describe what the other was talking about. I didn’t get the information I needed, and the tone of the interaction left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

I went back to my team with the little I had, but my team had the same questions that I asked and didn’t get real answers to.

I tried to message the two people on the other team who got closest to the information I needed. One of them, the lead, said she’d rather discuss it again with the whole team and to make a meeting, so I made a meeting. Then the lead emailed everyone on the meeting and said this could be an email, not a meeting, so I sent them an email. I spent a lot of time trying to word the email clearly to fix the communication issues we had. After a couple days, I sent them a reminder. The next week, I sent another reminder. They never responded. We’re remote, so I couldn’t stop by their desks.

Here’s where I really really messed up. I had to give a presentation that needed the information I had to get from them. So, in a last-minute panic, I put the email into ChatGPT. Its answer sounded plausible, so I used it in the presentation. The presentation went great.

Now I’m terrified about when my bosses find out I never got the answers from the team, and then I have to tell them I got them from ChatGPT. I know I did the wrong thing. What was I supposed to do? What can I do now? Could I have fixed that awful meeting somehow?

Oh no.

Okay, here’s the thing: this wasn’t a situation where ChatGPT could have helped. Your team doesn’t need to know what ChatGPT thinks could be improved in a particular process; it needs to know what a specific team in your specific workplace thinks needs to be improved — what their pain points and challenges are — and that’s not something ChatGPT could possibly know. At best you’ll have gotten broad, vague suggestions that may or may not apply to their context. At worst you’ll have gotten things that don’t make sense at all and don’t reflect anything the other team ever would have cited. For all we know, ChatGPT offered up suggestions to fix things the other team likes about the process, or things that don’t apply to them. And it’s highly, highly likely that it didn’t identify their actual problems, because how could it know? (They don’t even seem to be able to articulate those problems themselves.)

I get that you were frustrated with the roadblocks the other team was putting up. The right thing to do at that point would have been to go to your manager, explain what was happening, and ask for guidance. Your manager might have been able to suggest another way to approach it, or might have talked with that team’s manager herself, or who knows what — but the important thing is that then she’d be looped into what was happening and could help you decide how to proceed.

I think it’s really important that you figure out (a) why you didn’t do that and (b) why ChatGPT seemed like a reasonable solution — because otherwise I think you’re likely to have significant lapses in judgment again. I want to be clear that I’m not saying that to berate you! What’s done is done. But if you don’t figure those things out, you’re at high risk of stepping in a similar landmine again.

As for what to do now … well, you provided key information that was just made up. Is your team planning to act on that info in some way? If so, you need to do something about that. You can’t let people put time and resources into solving problems that don’t actually exist (or ignore big problems ChatGPT didn’t tell them about). If they moved forward based on that info, presumably at some point the other team is going to hear that your team has solved “their” problems, and it’s likely to come to the surface that they never said those things to you.

I don’t know exactly what you said in your presentation, but is there any way to spin it as having been your best assessment based on limited info, and make it clear that the specifics did not come from the other team? Of course, if you said anything like “I spoke in detail with two program analysts, who identify XYZ as their biggest challenges,” then that’s not going to work. So it really depends on exactly how you framed things.

And a lot of what happens from here depends on how your team will use the contents of your presentation. In a best case scenario, your office is one that collects input from people and then lets it sit unaddressed, and so they won’t use it at all! But given the nature of your team’s work, I doubt that’s the case and you may need to come clean to your boss.

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