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The Art of Saying “I’m Sorry”. Again

The effects on team culture

Last time we talked about the impact one “I’m sorry” can have on your individual relationships with your team members. But being authentic and upfront about your shortcomings may positively impact other areas of your work too. Today we will discuss the effect an apology may have on the team culture you are trying to build.

Contribute to the team culture

Colourful Apology

One of the underlying questions I ask myself in everything I do as a leader is how my actions and decisions will contribute to the team culture I envision.

There are several pillars on which our team culture lies and the load-bearing one is ownership. Our work’s nature is such that every mistake we make is highly visible and immediately leads to escalation or could have potentially severe compliance-related consequences. This may prompt and has prompted in the past an inclination to try to sweep the mistake under the rug or try to avoid responsibility.

However, this approach goes against our team goals to continuously improve and be trusted partners to our employees and colleagues. I have tried various tactics to approach this issue, but what I found to be the most efficient one was to show consistently that to err is human and that as long as we learn from our mistakes and fix what we broke, we can remain respected professionals and retain our credibility.

And what better way to prove this than to show that your boss can mess up much worse than you.

Another topic that is always front and center in my mind is authenticity and how important it is to be yourself at work. We spend long and hectic hours with our colleagues. The strain to always present yourself as an “ideal” employee or manager adds unnecessarily to the tremendous stress we are already experiencing. I want to be allowed to be imperfect and fail occasionally and I want my teammates to feel the same way too.

The Story

Leadership mistakes and team culture

Performance metrics are crucial in HR delivery. They demonstrate to our stakeholders the efficiency and quality of our work and allow our leaders to measure the success in implementing their strategies. Even more importantly, they provide me insights into the areas where my team members may need additional training and support and the processes we need to improve (yep, I am not as persuasive as I like to think). 

I currently manage three separate HR functions. Two of them I built myself and I ingrained performance metrics in our operations from the get-go. The third one, however, I inherited together with their processes, mindsets and culture. They had never had formal, measurable targets for their performance. This does not stop them from being the most hard-working, talented and dedicated bunch of individuals I have worked with and to do small miracles every day. But it does prevent their managers and me from standardizing our work, identifying areas that need support and improvement and turning them into a truly global team (which is my ultimate goal. More on that in future posts).

So backed by this solid logic a few months ago, I decided to implement performance metrics for those teams. I had meetings, presentations and one-to-ones explaining the need, what we will achieve with them and how they will help both the individuals and the teams. As expected, there were many concerns and much push-back that I am afraid to say, I was not able to completely disperse

The metrics were quarterly, so a few weeks back, I set a meeting with my teams’ managers to collect the data and discuss how we will conduct the performance review metrics.

Fate loves me and the meeting was postponed a few times, so I had some extra time to take another look at the performance scorecard. All of a sudden, it did not seem such a good idea anymore. In a few short weeks, we had completely changed the operations model under which we worked. We had added several new members to the team that had not adapted to our way of work yet, and we had changed our short and mid-term priorities. The metrics which used to look very timely and appropriate would now cause only disruption and would not bring most of the benefits I envisioned.

I had to make a choice. I could proceed with the implementation and take advantage of the partial benefits, make multiple exceptions and create extra work for my managers at a time when they were swamped. Or I could face my mistake and admit to the team that the decision I had so adamantly defended in front of them a few months back had ultimately been wrong.

I had a brief battle with my ego. I played around with a few scenarios in my mind and decided to face the music and retract my decision.

The first step was surprisingly easy. I gathered my managers and explained to them the reasons for the retraction and how I plan to proceed going forward. I got a pretty unanimous “yeaah.”

The next step was a harder one – I had to stand in front of the whole team and frankly admit that I had been wrong, that I sometimes make unsound decisions and am not almighty and all-knowing. And here I buckled. Instead of gathering them together in a meeting, I did the cowardly thing and sent an email. In that email, I not only explained the change in my decision and the reasons behind it, but I apologized for causing them unnecessary apprehension. I told them I could promise that I would not mess up again but that I would always revisit my decisions and ensure that they remain adequate under the changing circumstances.

And then I waited. Even though this is not the first time I have apologized to large groups of people, and I ultimately know that this is the right thing to do, there is always the fear of how it will affect my reputation, my credibility as a leader, the trust the team has in my expertise. I got limited response (probably because I did not create a good opportunity for dialogue. As I said, I am still a coward at times), but whatever I received was very sincere and appreciative. They shared that my openness and the care I had shown for the team motivated them even more to improve and sustain their performance. A few weeks after that email, I still enjoy their trust and they have not questioned any of my subsequent decisions. There is a strong feeling that we are all in this together and that they can be confident that my care for the team always comes first

Outcome of apology to team infographic

Have you had any situations in which you knew what was the right thing to do but did not have the strength to go through with it?

Tell me in the comments.

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