I was dismayed by the resistance of the team of volunteers who were working on generating new 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, do 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 what this person was telling me was true. The questions I had asked were okay; but I had a pattern of asking them in a way that made people defensive. It felt like a hostile interrogation rather then supportive clarification. It was one of the major elements of my leadership style that I was working to improve.
I realized I owed the group an apology.
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 hostile 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 room almost every person on the team shook my hand and thanked me for acknowledging my error and for my apology.
I learned so much from this incident.
First, leaders can have 'blind spots'; behaviors that are so ingrained that they don't even notice it when they are indulging in them. I was oblivious to my interrogation style questioning when I was doing it.
Second, teams can get into moods that can last a long time. When people get angry their mood doesn't just 'blow over'. It lingers. As a leader, I needed to pay attention to the moods of teams, committees, and the individuals around me. I tended to acknowledge only the words and organizational niceties that often hid what was really going on.
Finally, I learned that a heartfelt and authentic apology was a way to put everyone on the road to rebuilding trust relatively quickly. It's amazing how forgiving people can be when they sense that you are truly sorry for your mistakes and are committed to changing your behavior going forward.
Real apologies have tremendous power to mend wounds both old and new.