Lessons in Leadership – Small Words Count

Consider the following dialogue between a manager and an employee:

“I am sorry about the way I handled that last conversation”.
“It’s okay, that happens. We are a family and disagreements are part of it.”
“I will try to ensure it does not happen again.”

Now, on first glance it seems as though the employee is apologizing for his/her behaviour. The manager is reassuring the employee that arguments are part and parcel of working together in the same place every day. Would it then surprise you to know that it is in fact the manager that is apologizing and the employee that is reassuring the manager in this dialogue? This exchange of words took place at my worksplace just recently.

Many leaders think that apologizing is a sign of weakness and there is certainly no reason for a manager to say sorry. They contend that since they are in a position of command, what they say or do does not require any explanation. In fact, when you ask employees in a 360-degree feedback session (usually anonymous feedback by all individuals working with the manager), they usually consider a manager to be someone who is pompous, out to make a buck or two, and only concerned about money.

Take notice of one more crucial aspect in the conversation. Read it again and ask yourself if anything strikes you as surprising about how the employee responds to the manager’s apology? Isn’t the employee in fact attempting to spare the feelings of the manager? The employee makes a genuine effort by saying “we are a family”.

This transformation does not occur overnight. It comes only when you, as a manager, are truthful from the very beginning. Saying sorry does two things: firstly, it increases trust (“I know that my manager will tell me the truth”) and secondly, the staff relate to the manager as being human and not just a troll. The employees then know that the manager is truthful to them and will be accountable for his/her own actions.

Managers often have the habit of ‘passing on the buck’ to their employees rather than admit their own mistakes. But the lesson learnt here is that when you own up to your own shortcomings as a manager, the employees do not feel the need to be scared about you playing the blame game at their shortcomings either.

This article is written by Swapnil Rege. Swapnil is a director in private health care. He is currently pursuing his MBA at Schulich School of Business in Toronto, Canada with a specialisation in Health Industry Management and Accounting. In addition, he is the Chair of the Oncology Division of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association, Vice- President of the Ontario Physiotherapy Association (Westgate District) and is overseeing the development of a leadership curriculum in the physiotherapy profession.

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