Apologies: Part 1

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.



7 thoughts on “Apologies: Part 1

  1. One of the things that I MOST admire in effective leaders is admitting personal responsibility and error when needed. This sort of humble, honest, person-to-person approach can do exactly what you observed: burst a bubble of hostility and resentment and improve respect and loyalty by leaps and bounds. I’m also trying to strengthen my own leadership/management style and that is something that I am specifically trying to be mindful of and to practice myself. Bravo, well done, and thanks so much for sharing it with your readers! Alicia

  2. Alicia,
    In my next post I am going to relate the story of an apology that did not go well. It came from the wrong place…shame. It was all about me.
    I am so happy to hear you are in practice to be more effective.

  3. Pete:
    I’ve had two experiences that relate to this one of yours. I was making a consulting presentation to a design firm looking to change market strategies. One of the partners approached me after the lunch break, during which he had been inundated with feedback from employees who were in a panic, taking my recommendations wrong and getting very defensive. Rather than get defensive myself, I immediately changed what I was planning to present that afternoon. I chose to validate the concerns that had been raised, expand what I had said to include their intentions, and thank them for trusting me with such speedy feedback. It worked.

    The other was consulting a K12 program in turmoil over the firing of their school Principal. During interviews and group meetings, I discovered a group of teachers had been holding a grudge for ten years against the Librarian for something she said in passing. I was astonished that resentment could be sustained for a decade against someone they saw every day. I assumed the issue had been raised with me so I could frame the opportunity to let it go and move on.

  4. Tom,
    I can see that when you work as a consultant one of the things you offer your clients is the ability to see behaviors and patterns that have become invisible to them because they are so close to them on a daily basis.

    I also sense from your comment that you are able to take actions, as an outsider, that would be hard for those involved to take.

    You are a great model for us.

    In appreciation,

  5. Dear Pete,
    I was one of the team members that felt “put off” by what happened in the original meeting when we brought forth our ideas. Unfortunately, due to other work commitments, I was not able to attend the meeting when you addressed the group and apologized. I did hear from my fellow team members about what you said at the meeting and felt a sense of re-connection to you and what we were all trying to accomplish. This incident must have had a big impact on you for you to address it at this time. Once again, I appreciate your honesty. You are an inspiration.

  6. Madalyn,
    It did have a big impact. It taught me that it’s easy to have “blind spots”; behaviors that are so ingrained that you don’t even notice it when you are indulging in them.

    I also learned that once people get angry at the way they have been treated that it doesn’t just “blow over”. It lingers.

    Finally, I learned that a heartfelt and authentic apology can put everyone on the road to trust very quickly. It’s amazing how forgiving people can be if they believe you are truly sorry for your mistake.


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