One might ask what “The No Surprises Rule,” and “The Power of Apology,” have in common. The unifying thread is yours truly – the author of this post.
When I begin a series of leadership facilitations, I typically say “I made a lot of mistakes as an employee, a supervisor, and leader; the good news is that I learned from those mistakes; the better news is that I’m willing to share them so you don’t make these mistakes.”
Lessons Learned . . . The Hard Way: The No Surprises Rule
It’s never “if” we make mistakes; rather, it’s how we handle them.
As a young lawyer, I went into the corporate office of a company SVP, and, yes, said something I shouldn’t have. I have no recollection of what I said, only the response. These were the days – hopefully over now – when a corporate officer thought nothing of yelling, waving arms, and chewing out the person to whom the ire was directed. That was me.
I recall my face flushing, leaving the man’s office (yes, they were all men), and sneaking back to my office, closing the door, and avoiding my boss. I hoped against hope, that the SVP’s ire had faded, and my boss would never find out. Of course, the SVP called my boss, who then catapulted into my office. Yes, I was in for a second round of tongue-lashing. His parting comment, “Don’t ever put me in that situation again. I don’t like these surprises.”
I learned then and there, that the better route would have been for me to leave the SVP’s office, and rapidly walk into my boss’s office with a confession. “John, I am sorry. I over-stepped boundaries when I was in Mr. Smith’s office, and said something I shouldn’t have. I think he got the anger out. However, you may hear from him.”
As the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed. Had John known, the call from SVP Smith would not have come from left field, allowing John either to apologize, or, possibly, defend me. At a minimum, he would have been forewarned.
The “No Surprises Rule,” Part II
Within a few years of that episode, I was promoted and now was in the boss’s chair. Like my boss before me, I never liked to be surprised. I always wanted to be the first to know when an employee goofed.
Having this information allowed me to take the initiative. This frequently meant calling the other individual and apologizing. After all, as the saying goes, “All credit goes to the team, and all mistakes are owned by the boss.”
The Power of Apology
Let’s return back in time, to when I was the neophyte lawyer reporting to John. Once again, I found myself in a similar situation, an angry client, yet I handled it differently – with quite different results. The situation this time, involved my reaching out to the head of a remote office to provide counsel on an employee matter.
He wasn’t in, thus, I asked to speak to his second in command. Without knowing, and/or appreciating the politics of that particular office, I advised the #2 of the employee matter.
The remote office boss, Mr. Jones, didn’t bother chewing me out directly. Rather, he called John. Mr. Jones indicated, “Everyone knows that George is a big gossip. Tell your attorney that George didn’t keep the matter confidential, and now I have a huge problem in the office.” According to John, Mr. Jones was “hopping mad.”
This time, I got into my little yellow Honda and drove to the remote office for my tongue-lashing. On the two-hour drive, I planned my moves.
I walked into Mr. Jones’ office, which displayed all the signs I was going to be the recipient of his ire. Before he could get a word out, I said, “Mr. Jones, I apologize. I should never have talked to George. I should have waited until you returned. I’m sorry.”
The Effects of Apology
I will never forget the look on Mr. Jones’s face, and the change in his body language. His previous stance – sitting in his chair to full height, and leaning forward – and the scowl on his face completely dissipated. He slumped in his chair and turned the frown on his lips into a look of surprise in his eyes.
To say he was surprised is an understatement. After a beyond awkward silent ten seconds or so, he said, “Apology accepted.” Also, he admitted that there was no way I could have known that George was a gossip. (Frankly, in my humble opinion, the person who deserved discipline was George, not me…)
After that experience, and to this day, when I goof, I apologize. In fact, this happened as recently as yesterday. I’ve also learned that supplying a reason in an apology is viewed as an excuse and diminishes the apology. It’s like putting a “but,” in the middle of the sentence, which negates what was said beforehand, a la “I’m sorry, but I . . .”
I simply say some version of, “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” or, “My mistake, you were right. Sorry about that.” The “my mistake, you were right,” was what I said yesterday.
In summary, try practicing the “No Surprises Rule,” and the “Power of Apology.” Trust me, they work.
Find more on these and other communication tips, in Consequential Communication in Turbulent Times: A Practice Guide to Leadership, and do share your stories. Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.