I couldn’t understand the resistance of the team of volunteers who were working on generating and implementing ideas for improving our organization. They had been in a negative mood for many months and they were not moving forward with any sort of commitment. I began asking different people I trusted what they thought was going on. A few days later one of the members of the team came to my office.“Pete, you know why the team is not doing well? Why we’re just going through the motions”?
I answered, “No, I don’t.”
“Well, remember about 6 or 7 months ago we came to the Leadership Meeting and reported out some of our ideas?”
“Yes”, I replied.
“Do you remember how you treated us?”
“Yes, I asked you questions about how you got your ideas, and how you thought they would help the organization.”
“Well, yes; but to us it felt like you were attacking us. It felt like all the work we had done up to that point was insignificant. You made us feel like our ideas weren’t very good.”
I was stunned, “I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I’ve known you for a long time, Pete. I know you didn’t mean it that way; but that’s how they took it. I can tell you honestly, that they are really mad at you.”
“But that was almost 6 months ago.”
“Pete, They still haven’t gotten over it. They’re angry.”
I was embarrassed. I knew that this was true. The questions I asked were okay; but I had a pattern of asking them in a way that made people defensive. It felt like hostile interrogation rather then supportive clarification. It was one of the major elements of my leadership style that I was working with my coach to improve.
My coach and I discussed what I should do, and he suggested that I apologize to the group. I called the team together and after they got settled related to them that I had noticed that something was wrong and that they seemed angry. I told them that someone had told me it stemmed from the meeting earlier in the year when they reported out to the Leadership Team and I jumped on them with a lot of questions.
I centered myself and apologized. I didn’t mean for my questioning to produce what it did. I explained that it wasn’t the first time that I had been overly aggressive when I was questioning a group and that I could see why they were angry. They had a right to be angry. I let them know that I was truly appreciative of their work and that I was committed to not having this happen in the future.
I felt an immediate shift in the energy of the room. My authentic apology had punctured the pent up animosity of the team. They felt acknowledged and they felt my heart and my commitment to change. They were willing to allow trust to be rebuilt.
On the way out of the meeting each person on the team shook my hand and said thank you for acknowledging my error and thank you for the apology.
I learned two things from this incident. First, teams can get into moods that can last a long time. As a leader, I needed to pay attention to the moods of those around me, not just the superficial facades and words that often hide what’s really going on.
Second, a sincere apology, that comes from the right place, can have enormous power, and is an important first step to rebuilding relationships.