I recently had a situation that I now see I handled very badly with one of my second-line reports in India. Sandeep (name changed for confidentiality) had gone completely AWOL. This coincided with his direct supervisor (my direct report) going on maternity leave early. Her back-up person wasn’t in place yet, so it escalated to me. Sandeep had been totally inaccessible and had missed deadlines with no communication. His team was short staffed and the service was suffering. His team was in an uproar, people were mad at Sandeep, and things were going downhill fast.
I got Sandeep on the phone and read him the riot act. I have always been direct and focused on performance, which has always worked for me. Plus, I was stressed because that wasn’t the only crisis landing on my desk at the time.
Months went by and I thought nothing of it until my direct report returned from her leave.
As it turns out, Sandeep’s mother and father suffered life-changing impacts resulting from a critical COVID infection and hospitalization. I knew India had been particularly hard hit by the Covid situation, but the area where our office was had yet to be affected. Sandeep had been sending texts and emails to his direct supervisor, but of course she was having her own crisis with her pregnancy and was radio silent.
I have just learned about all of this, and I feel terrible about it. My reputation has suffered and I am being viewed as a heartless task master. How do I recover from this? How can I restore my reputation? Yes, I am performance focused, but I am really not a monster.
Clearly you are not a monster. I acknowledge your self-awareness and your willingness to take responsibility for causing someone pain and hardship. So many would just shrug it off and get on with things.
There is one short-term action you might take, and other longer-term ones to consider.
Let’s start with the short term, as in, do now: Apologize. Why is it so hard for people to say “I’m sorry”? It is a bit of a mystery to me. In The Fourth Secret of The One Minute Manager, Ken Blanchard and Margret McBride share that people who can’t apologize derive their own self-worth from their performance and the opinion of others. Is it the fear of appearing vulnerable? Probably. Mostly, I think people don’t know how to do it. Or they know it will be super uncomfortable, so they just choose to avoid it.
Ken and Margret outline some key points to keep in mind when it has come to your attention that you probably should apologize:
- Apologize as soon as possible after you recognize your error.
- Be scrupulously honest and specific about what you did wrong and how you would correct it if you could.
- Let go of any ideas you have about the outcome or results of your apologizing. You can’t go in with an authentic apology hoping for a quid pro quo.
- Create a plan for how you might fix the situation you caused and share it with the appropriate people.
Long-term action is going to involve your taking some time to reflect on how your belief systems or attitudes about leadership and people influenced the way events played out. What might need to change to prevent such behavior in the future? Essentially, you have broken trust with your people. It might be helpful for you to take a look at our Trust Model to assess the specific areas that may apply to you. I love the way this model takes something that can seem very abstract and makes it crystal clear and tangible. Our model breaks trust down into four components: Able, Believable, Connected, and Dependable.
It sounds like the area you could focus on is Connected, which means you care about others. This is the trust area I personally struggle with the most. When there is a lot at stake and a ton to do, the first thing that flies out the window for me is Connection, so I really empathize with you.
This area breaks down into these three dimensions: Benevolence, Communication, and Rapport.
Some questions might be:
- Are you perceived as generally kind and decent?
- Do you actually care about others’ well being?
- Are you capable of demonstrating empathy?
- Do your people feel that you have their backs?
- Do you schedule time and spend time simply connecting and conversing with your people?
- Do you communicate enough with each of your people to feel like you know them and they know you?
- Have you made appropriate efforts to develop rapport with everyone on your team?
- Do you look for opportunities to acknowledge, encourage, praise, and advocate for others?
If you really do care—and it sounds like you do—the next step is to take concrete steps to show it. (If you really don’t care, well, that is a different problem and I would recommend you examine that point of view.)
Start with your immediate team and then branch out to peers and your skip-level folks. Concrete steps could be regular one-on-one meetings and group coffee chats. I understand nobody wants more meetings, but getting together is a basic human need. Our CEO used to have a monthly lunch with everyone who had their birthday in that month. Our company got too big, and we had too many folks in the field, and then, of course, COVID. But it lasted a long time and made a big difference for people. Something—anything—you can do to simply spend time getting to know people will help.
Work relationships are like all relationships—they just require a little attention. Nobody wants a lot of friends who only call when they need something. You don’t want your team to automatically assume they are about to get yelled at when they see your name on their phone.
A couple of rules of thumb to consider:
- Unless you have previous evidence the person doesn’t deserve it, give them the benefit of the doubt. If you really can’t do that, your hiring practices might need some revising.
- There is always time to read people the riot act after you have ascertained that is what’s needed.
- When in doubt, ask questions first. What’s going on? is a always a good place to start.
All of your natural tendencies to be direct and to focus on performance will still be there, don’t worry. No one is going to think you’ve gone soft. People might actually perceive you as someone who cares—and honestly, how can that be a bad thing?
As solutions architect Ann Rollins, my colleague and friend, recently wrote in an email: “Tomorrow is a new day indeed, and we own our script. What are the things you have been thinking about that you can choose to do differently? We’re only here for a short time, friend. Let’s make the seconds, hours, and days add up!”
Well said, I think.
Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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