Guest Column

Leaders and Apologies

by Pete Reilly

Being a leader does not absolve us from being human or from making mistakes. It’s good to remember that the mistake itself is one thing. How we handle it afterward is another.

I learned this lesson the hard way. My team of volunteers at the Southern Westchester Board of Cooperative Serv-ices had been working on generating new ideas for improving our organization, which provides education technology services to more than 60 school districts just north of New York City. They had been in a negative mood and downright surly for many months, and they were not exhibiting any real commitment to the work they had volunteered to do.

I began asking people I trusted what they thought was going on.

An Attack Mode
A few days later, one member 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?”

“No, I don’t,” I answered.

“Well, remember about six or seven months ago the team came to the leadership meeting and reported out on some of our ideas?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Do you remember how you treated us?”

“Yes, I asked you some 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 six months ago.”

“Pete, they still haven’t gotten over it. They’re angry.”

Ending Animosity
I was embarrassed. I knew what this person was telling me was true. The questions I had asked were OK, but I had a pattern of asking them in a way that made people defensive. I had been told more than once that when I questioned people it felt like a hostile interrogation rather then supportive clarification. At times, my questions could have a tone of judgment and condescension. 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 in the conference room, I related to them that I had noticed 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 it wasn’t the first time I had been overly aggressive when I was questioning a group and I could see why they were angry. They had a right to be angry.

I let them know I was truly appreciative of their work and I was committed to not allow this to happen in the future. I hoped they would accept my apology and finish their work because it was so important to our organization.

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.

Amending Errors
As leaders, we should acknowledge we have blind spots — behaviors that are ineffective and so ingrained we don’t even notice when we are indulging in them. I was oblivious to my interrogation-style questioning when I was doing it. Thank goodness, someone had the courage to point this out to me.

It’s also important to recognize that teams, committees and individual staff members can get into moods that can last a long time. When people get angry, their mood may not just blow over. It lingers. It’s hard to accomplish anything important when the folks on your team feel angry or mistreated.

If we try to make amends for our mistakes with carefully worded, politically motivated statements, we will create even more distrust.
On the other hand, a heartfelt and authentic apology can put everyone on the road to rebuilding broken trust and damaged relationships relatively quickly. People can be incredibly forgiving 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.

Pete Reilly leads Ed Tech Journeys in Elmsford, N.Y., and is president of the New York Association of Computers and Technology in Education. E-mail: preilly@edtechjourneys.com