When is the last time you said “I’m sorry”?
In December of 2012, I officially became a parent. Thinking back on those first years of my daughter’s life (before our other kids), it’s amazing the things you remember and forget (until something reminds you).
Now that she’s a bit older, I see that one of the easy things to forget is what a handful she was as a baby and young toddler.
We learned a lot in those early years, not the least of which was the fact that love and discipline, plus consistency and patience can be a truly magical combination for helping children navigate their emotions while building a deep and lasting bond with them.
But the ugly side of parenting is that you are forced to come face to face with your own worst flaws.
The mistakes I made as a parent are too many to count, but one thing my wife and I committed to early on was that if we made a mistake with our kids … overreacting, losing our temper, unfair punishments, misunderstanding, misapplication of blame, incorrect assumptions … we would verbally apologize to our children. We would kneel down, look them in the eye, and say the words “I’m sorry, that was wrong. I should not have done that.”
It’s such a humbling (humiliating?) thing to have to do. Me, the parent, apologizing to them, the kid … it feels strange. But it does get easier the more you do it.
Since making this a part of our family’s DNA, it’s amazing how often you notice the mental gymnastics some parents perform to avoid saying “I’m sorry” to their kids, and it’s a good reminder to me how important that small act, that simple phrase, really is.
Instruction + modeling = behavior forming
The best leaders I’ve experienced in my life were great at explaining what needed to be done, and also having the discipline and character to do it themselves.
One of Andy Grove’s 5 responsibilities as a leader in High Output Management is “being a role model”.
“Do as I say …” just doesn’t work.
If you’ve been given any leadership responsibilities, modeling the behavior you want to see from your team is absolutely essential.
Owning Our Mistakes
One quality of a healthy team is adopting a culture that encourages everyone to own their own mistakes.
Sometimes that’s missing a deadline, or shipping a bug to production, or forgetting to do something that you committed to do.
Sometimes it’s being accidentally (or purposefully) insulting, or taking something personally that you shouldn’t have, or snapping at one of your coworkers.
A team culture that allows for mistakes and encourages speedy apologies is a health metric that is at the top of my priority list as a leader.
Permission to Screw Up: How I Learned to Lead by Doing (Almost) Everything Wrong
But just wanting that kind of culture doesn’t guarantee it.
Telling your teams that’s what’s expected of them, coaching them to be generous with apologies and forgiveness, giving presentations or recommending books … none of that will be as effective as them seeing you, the leader, practicing what you preach.
So, back to the title of this post: when was the last time you said “I’m sorry”?
Guess what? You’re not perfect. You do make mistakes.
If, for some reason, you believe that the reason you haven’t apologized lately is because you’ve done nothing worth apologizing for, you have bigger problems.
If you aren’t apologizing, it’s not because there’s nothing to apologize for. You’re just so out of practice that you’re not letting things register as mistakes worth apologizing for.
Make it a practice to notice and write down every time you mess something up. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn what not to do, and to model what should be done after the mistake was made.
Own your mistakes as fast as possible, so you can mitigate and correct the damage done, improve your systems to prevent it from happening again, and try not to make the same mistake twice.
Mind how you respond to others’ mistakes
After enough time coaching your team to own their mistakes and say “I’m sorry” when they make them, and of course modeling this behavior yourself, you need to make sure you are reacting properly when people actually start to adopt the practice themselves.
Is your team safe to admit mistakes in front of you?
One of my favorite interview questions to use when chatting with potential hires is “tell me about the last time you made a mistake at work that you had to apologize for?”.
I like this better than “what’s your greatest weakness?”, because for one, it’s unexpected, and two, there’s little room to wriggle out of it with a clever answer. No “I care too much” or “I work too hard / too much” nonsense.
It sets the tone for the team they’d potentially be joining.
It’s OK to fail on this team. Expected, even.
No blame, no bravado.
We apologize, we own our mistakes, and we get better. And most importantly, having the humility to admit a mistake in front of me will never be something you have to be afraid of.
Don’t believe me? You will when you see me apologize as much or more than anyone else.