Should leaders apologize?
Here’s a true story I was told recently by my old friend Leonard (not his real name) who reads this blog.
Leonard was on a training course at work. A very senior ‘big cheese’ had been drafted in to give the course validity.
She presented a story about how she had severely reprimanded one of her sales people for not achieving his targets. He was very unhappy about this and argued with her, but she did not listen.
As she was traveling back on the train she glanced over the sales figures. It turned out she had been mistaken and the sales person had achieved his targets. She simply hadn’t looked properly at the figures.
That was the end of her story. So Leonard asked her what she had then done. He was faced with a blank stare. What did she say to the salesman after she realised her mistake? He asked her, trying to make it a bit clearer. His colleagues waited in anticipation.
She had said nothing to her reportee, she told the assembled trainees. That’s what being a strong leader is all about.
Sadly I was not surprised, but I am appalled.
Doctors and mistakes
Just after I started to draft out this post, I heard a programme on BBC Radio 4 “Doctor – Tell me the truth”.
It was about medical mistakes and what happens when doctors slide into their customary ‘deny and defend’ posture, closing ranks and refusing to admit anything (not every doctor is like this, but there have been many examples of this behaviour). This approach was contrasted with some experiments where doctors have come forward as soon as they have discovered a mistake has been made.
In this contrasting scenario, they have contacted the patients, who are sometimes completely unaware there was a mistake.
Apparently one doctor who was asked to take part in this new approach said he ‘would rather eat nails’ than sit in a room with a patient and be honest about what had happened.
However, once he was faced with the patient he could hardly stop talking about it.
You won’t be surprised to learn that in the main, patients prefer this new approach. It also reduces the costs of compensation, in some cases quite drastically.
Apparently one in ten hospital patients in the US suffers in some way from a mistake during their treatment. I don’t know what the figure is here in the UK, but do know that only last week an old friend of mine nearly had a test that could have killed her because of a ‘communication error’ in the hospital. Fortunately she pointed it out in time.
Mistakes happen in all fields. When a mistake happens you need to find ways to make sure it is rectified and prevented from happening in the future.
If no one admits their mistakes, it’s very difficult to make improvements, so the whole system becomes self-perpetuating.
Why do people think it’s so wrong to apologize?
Any fool can work this out, so why didn’t the woman on the training course manage it?
Personally I think it shows much more strength to apologize than to hide your mistake. In fact, I would say that this behaviour shows cowardice and weakness. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone who worked for me to behave like this. How could you ever trust them?
In my view, the manager Leonard told us about should have been fired. Instead she was being held up as an example to others.
Why do I think she should be fired? Just two reasons:
- She was blatantly wasting the resources of the company and even seemed to be proud of it. By giving someone feedback that is the absolute opposite of the facts, you are (at the very least) reducing their performance. And I’m not even touching on motivation here.
- Her understanding of fundamental management skills seems to be extremely poor, so she should not be managing anyone until those skills are improved.
Personally I would have expected a senior manager to apologize and also to work out how the mistake had arisen and find a way of ensuring that in future she got the figures right.
This is very basic stuff.
You may think I’m being rather intolerant here. And you would be right. I don’t like mistakes any more than anyone else, but I know they happen. What I’m intolerant of is people who won’t admit the mistakes and make it difficult for others to do so.
The best strategy with mistakes
You need to make it easy for people to admit it when things have gone wrong and support those who do. Then you can get on with the much more important task of working out how to get it right. This will vastly benefit everyone.
Are you too soft?
I listened to David Attenborough on Desert Island Disks recently. He had many fascinating stories to tell. He talked about his parents. They were striking and inspiring.
During the war, they helped many refugees. One day, David and his two brothers came home to find two girls were staying with them. His parents told the three brothers that they now had two sisters.
David admitted on the programme that he wasn’t very happy about this. He liked his parents and didn’t feel like sharing them.
Apparently, when his father got wind of this he simply pointed out to David that he was lucky to have two parents. These girls had none. So he was now sharing his parents with them and he’d better get used to it. (His father was quite severe at times.)
Of course, David did get used to it and was in touch with both girls till they died.
Are we a bit soft sometimes?
It made me wonder how I would have tackled this issue myself as one of David’s parents. I think I might have been rather softer about it. But would that have been the best way? I really think there are times when you have to stop moping and feeling sorry for yourself and make the best of the situation.
Perhaps all you need to do sometimes is point out the facts.
There is a local Farmers’ Market near here. Shortly before Christmas a new stall with wonderful Scotch Eggs turned up. It is run by chemistry graduate, Holly. She told me she couldn’t get a job in her chosen career, so thought she’d have a go at something else.
She wasn’t at the next market. I was very disappointed, not just because I had planned to have some of her eggs, but because I felt I’d misjudged her. She seemed so enthusiastic, I didn’t think she would have given up so soon.
Next time, she was back again. I asked what had happened the last time. It turned out the roads were very icy and she’d had an accident on the way in to the market. But here she was back again. And she wasn’t complaining, she was just getting on with it.
There was no moaning about the lack of careers in chemistry or having wasted three years of her life studying a subject that was of no use.
Instead, there was just enthusiasm and smiles. This week she was there again, bravely battling against the rain and cold wind. I bought three eggs: Honey and Mustard, Red Onion Chutney and Sweet Chilli flavour.
How to stop moaning
It can be very easy to get stuck in a rut of moaning. I found myself in just such a rut this week when our internet connection broke. There was so much I needed to do that involved having a connection and no guarantee of getting a connection back for seven working days.
I found myself getting more and more annoyed and less and less productive. Finally I decided that this was not helping and started working out what I could do instead of whining about what I couldn’t. Pretty soon I had quite a long list.
Yes, I did have to spend much of the weekend fixing the problem, but complaining about it didn’t help. It rarely does.
How looking for the positive helps
Now I’m not suggesting that taking the ‘Pollyanna’ route will solve all your problems or get you a job when there are none to be had. However, it’s worth noting that if you adopt a negative approach you become physically less able to spot opportunities when they are staring you in the face. This in turn vastly reduces your chances of success.
Adopting a positive approach enables you to see opportunities that would otherwise be invisible to you.
What happens in your brain
This is because your right frontal lobe (the part of your brain just behind your forehead on the right) becomes more active and your left frontal lobe becomes less active. The left frontal lobe identifies opportunities and helps you to set goals. The right frontal lobe interprets new information as a threat.
Are you just stirring the pan and hoping for the best?
I was on a cookery course recently. This is all as part of my New Year’s Resolution to try out 52 recipes this year. (You can keep up to date with my progress and the recipes on our FaceBook page.)
It was a knife-skills lesson. We learned some useful things on how to cut up vegetables without losing any fingers and, very usefully, why to chop garlic small sometimes and not other times.
But the bit that really made me smile was when Sarah, our tutor, said that everyone likes stirring the pan, but it’s the preparation that’s most important.
Stirring the pot is easy when the preparation is done
She was absolutely right. When I got home and made my dish (a wonderful spicy noodle soup) it was very easy. And it worked very well. With her kind permission I’ve included the recipe at the end of this article.
You can find out more about her at Courses for Cooks.
She told us that one of the objectives of the workshop was that we would be able to spend less time preparing (whilst still being well prepared). That is the kind of help with time management that I really appreciate.
Cooking is like life
Once again, the message is clear; preparation is the key. Yet how often have you plunged into something without preparing and made more work for yourself?
An old saying
If you haven’t got time to do the job properly, where will you find the time to make the repairs?
An easy way to test how well you prepare
Over the next week just make a rough note of how much time you spend re-doing things that weren’t correct in the first place or dealing with problems that could have been avoided.
Then ask yourself how much time it would have taken to prepare effectively.
Depending on the difference you might want to put more time into the preparation. I can certainly say that my soup turned out very well as a result of excellent preparation. And next time I’ll be able to do the preparation even more quickly.
Spicy Noodle Soup
2-3 spring onions
Selection of vegetables (e.g. carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers, courgettes)
1 1/2 tsp each of garlic and ginger
1/2 red chilli
1/2 tsp Sezchaun peppercorns
1/4 tsp Chinese 5 spice powder
1 1/2 tsp soy sauce
500ml vegetable/chicken stock
salt to taste
Fresh coriander and ginger julienne to garnish
1 portion egg noodles (half a ‘cake’ per person for lunch)
- Slice the spring onions at an angle.
- Dice or julienne the vegetables.
- Finely chop garlic, ginger and chilli.
- Crush peppercorns and mix with 5 spice powder.
- Soak the noodles in boiling water.
- Heat a little oil in a non-stick pan and fry the onions, garlic and chilli for minute or two then add the peppercorns and spices powder.
- Stir in the hard vegetables (leave the ones that will cook quickly till later) and stock.
- Add soy sauce, put on a lid and bring to the boil.
- Remove the lid and simmer till the vegetables are part cooked before adding any other vegetables.
- Drain and divide the noodles between the bowls and pour over the hot soup.
- Garnish with ginger and coriander.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I am going to when I have it for my lunch today.
Working with people you don’t like
It’s very easy to just dismiss someone and say you don’t like them. But at work, that’s really not good enough. You are probably familiar with people who claim it’s the ‘chemistry’ or vaguely say there is ‘something about him/her I don’t like’.
That’s all very well, till it’s you they are talking about.
If you have this issue with someone, you need to be clear what it is you don’t like. This can be difficult but it is your responsibility, as a professional, to work it out.
The trouble is just ‘not liking’ someone is very unhelpful. If you want to move forward, it’s useful to identify exactly what the problem is.
The first step
Boil down what the individual does (or fails to do) that causes the problem. Be as specific as possible. Use a particular example.
Then work out what it is about that action that you do not like. Be objective.
Sometimes when you do this, you’ll find you are over-reacting. Other times being clear will really help you to focus on the issue and make it easier to start a conversation with the individual, or to deal with the behaviour.
Alan and John
I had a client; we’ll call him Harry, who ran a large department. The custom in that organisation was that a department head would have a deputy for one year and then the position would be rotated to another manager in that department But for the last three years, Harry had had the same deputy John. Now it was time to change.
Harry called up to see if I could help him to find a way to keep John on. We discussed it at length. He liked the way John worked; he was comfortable with John’s performance and behaviour.
But people were starting to complain and there was another obvious and eager candidate for the spot: Alan. Harry just didn’t like him and there had been some disputes between them over the years. I got Harry to go through his concerns. Most of them were very vague.
What was wrong with Alan
One of the concerns was that John always had a ‘to do list’. Alan did not. This was the most pressing of issue that he was able to verbalise. It turned out that John’s list was always around 20 items long. Alan didn’t have a list because he got things done quickly.
As we discussed the ‘reasons’ further it became clear that Alan was far better qualified for the role than John was, so my client reluctantly agreed to take him for the year.
A few days later I was accosted by Alan in the corridor. He told me that he’d been picked for the deputy role and was astonished because he thought Harry hated him. I merely smiled and said I was very pleased to hear the news.
Feelings about people change
After a few months Harry told me that he had decided he rather liked Alan. It turned out that Alan was much more efficient than John and had been responsible for many new ideas and improvements.
The last word
When Harry retired, it was Alan who made the presentation and speech. He said that he had been astonished to get the deputy post, because he and Harry hadn’t always hit it off, but that they had learned to work well together and become great friends in the process. As Alan spoke these words, Harry gave me a smile.
Your initial response isn’t always right
If there is someone you don’t like, be careful that you are being fair. It’s very easy to misjudge others – we’ve all been the victims of this behaviour so make sure you are not a perpetrator.
Some reasons for not liking people:
- Because of what they say or do (including how they have treated you or others)
- Because their values are different
- Because they treated you unfairly (there is a part of your brain that is specifically tuned into this).
- Because they disagree with you
Most of these issues can be discussed and overcome with a little effort. Have a go. Don’t wait till it becomes a serious problem.
Get more help with difficult people here.