When You Mess Up - Fess Up

Do you want a better workplace? Learn how to apologize.

🌋A Blow-Up & Its Consequences

In one of my first HR leadership roles, I met with a division head and his team. We were discussing ongoing issues with a department that stemmed from the supervisor. As we discussed the issues, the division head became increasingly impatient with a perceived lack of progress.

One of his direct reports, Bob, argued back, and an in-meeting blowup ensued. Voices were raised, irrational ultimatums issued, and the meeting ended with frustration, anger, and hurt feelings.

After the meeting, I spoke with both Bob and the division leader. Both were frustrated and felt the other had overstepped professional boundaries in the meeting, and I agreed. I advised the division leader to acknowledge the situation immediately with his direct reports to minimize the damage. From my perspective, I could easily see how the dynamic on the team had changed, and the team dynamic was damaged.

Bob apologized in his next private meeting with his division leader. He was expecting an apology as well, only to be disappointed when his division leader glossed over the matter with a comment along the lines of "passion is important in business - no one needs to apologize for a good knockdown, drag-out fight."

Bob, of course, saw the situation differently; he felt he'd been humiliated in front of his peers and felt much of the criticism was unreasonable.

🚶🏻‍♀️Everyone Moves At Their Own Pace

As an early career HR pro, this was an eye-opening experience. I saw upfront how that type of experience could shift the team dynamic. After that day, Bob and his peers were wary around their division leader, knowing that he could go from bro to vicious bobcat in a few seconds.

And Bob never forgot how he apologized but couldn't get the same from his leader. Their relationship was different after that.

When you mess up (and you will), even if you apologize - it may be too late. You may hurt someone to the point where it takes time, energy, and effort to repair that relationship, and that will upset you because you DID THE RIGHT THING and apologized, and want to move on. Keep in mind: everyone moves on at their own pace.

🤝Working Together on the Hard Stuff

As we talk about building better, more human workplaces, together. We have to reset the expectations at work. And that includes apologies. We are all human, we all make mistakes, and it’s time we realized that an apology doesn't make us weak. It doesn't take away from our competence or capability to admit when we've made a mistake.

An apology bonds us to each other and our teams in the mutual understanding that we are all human and fallible.

If this is anathema to your guiding principles or your survival instincts - I understand. Many of us don't even know what a real apology is because we've never seen it.

Here are some helpful tips I've learned over the years:

  • Be sincere and specific- what are you apologizing for? How did it make the other person feel? Ex: "I'm sorry I said that to you. It was hurtful and belittling."

  • Don't justify your actions. Don't do this: "I'm sorry you feel that way; I was just drained and hadn't had my morning cup of coffee."

  • Action- What are you going to do in the future? Ex: "I'm sorry I said that to you. It was hurtful and belittling. I'm working on developing more patience, so this doesn't happen again."

A sincere apology is the right thing to do, and it’s a relief to work through that awkwardness. If done right, it opens up a dialogue with the other person that builds your relationship. The best teams don't avoid conflict - they work through it -awkwardly at times, but growth is never comfortable.

I don’t drink wine during the day. Not even a little. Otherwise, the rest of the day is an apology.” - Angie Dickinson

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