The Sorry State of ‘Sorry’

Anyone who knows me understands my management style is predicated on unconditional love. We need to provide people with a safe place where they can grow, try new things, fail and get stronger and smarter. We need to nurture innovation, and that requires faith in the process of learning from mistakes. It’s a trust thing, and if we trust anyone enough to employ them, we owe them a shot at redemption. That’s what good managers do.

But that trust and freedom to fail also comes with an obligation. So, what should we do when people fail to learn from and correct bad habits — when they act as if saying, “I’m sorry” is a get-out-of-jail-free card? I call this the “sorry pattern.” I believe it calls for a little tough love and a reminder that bad habits are a choice that carries consequences.

We all have people in our lives who have played the “sorry” card too many times. Maybe we’re guilty ourselves. There’s the person who is habitually late for a meeting and mumbles “sorry” as she slides into her seat. Or the guy who apologizes for exploding his lunch in the communal microwave — again — but can’t seem to clean it, ever. Or that brilliant contributor to the team who thinks his great ideas buys him an I-can-miss-that-deadline free pass.

Here’s what my dad told me back when I was a kid. “Sorry isn’t good enough.” He knew I felt bad when I messed up, but he wasn’t interested in my remorse. He was interested in seeing a change and seeing results. Since I wasn’t taking responsibility for my actions, he insisted that I own up to whatever the problem was and make a plan to correct it. Good parents, good friends and good leaders call us out when it’s necessary. They put us on the path to redemption before serious resentment sets in.

What form should this intervention take with our work colleagues?

1. Make the employee aware of the “sorry” pattern.

In some cases, people aren’t even aware they have a problem. Or they may not be aware that you’re aware. Face-to-face intervention is in order. Of course, you should never call someone out or shame them publicly. Find a private place and have a discussion. Start by describing the pattern you’ve observed and ask if the person has an explanation, or at least seems contrite and eager to work on the problem.

Obviously, if there are mitigating health issues or a family situation contributing to the problem, compassion is in order. This isn’t just a “sorry” situation. You may want to involve HR to help find a solution or provide support resources. It’s always best to start from a place of unconditional love and move on to tough love as appropriate.

Be clear that the problem behavior isn’t acceptable, isn’t fair to others and won’t be tolerated. Depending on the severity of the issue, how long it’s been going on, and how many other people are affected by their behavior, modify the severity of your response. But always show that you are willing to help the person get back on track.

2. Provide coaching and agree on a solution.

In some cases, such as habitually showing up late or missing key deadlines, the solutions are easy to land on and revolve. One helpful strategy is to click through the steps that may be creating the problem behavior for the employee.

For example, the person habitually late to the office can begin by identifying their stumbling blocks — rush hour traffic, getting kids ready for school, waking up too late. That might help people realize they just need to allow more time to accomplish each part of the task of getting to work. People who have trouble meeting deadlines may have time-management issues. But it’s also possible that they simply over-promise on unrealistic timelines in an eagerness to please. That’s why it helps to identify the true pain point.

If you’re like me, you have enough experience with failure and redemption — my own and others’ — that I can usually help find a solution. And the truth is, with some people, simply showing a willingness to help them is enough impetus for them to help themselves. Also, there are any number of resources that can help you coach your direct reports — like the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Center for Creative Leadership. And of course, your human resources people may have their own preferred sources.

3. Examine the team’s project management process.

It’s always a good idea to consider whether an employee’s failings are part of a larger organizational or departmental challenge. Are expectations being communicated? Is collaboration being thwarted? Is the process that governs accountability vague or nonexistent? Is an individual’s unacceptable behavior a manifestation of a more dire problem that is being hidden?

As a manager, you owe it to everyone in your group to recognize behaviors that are symptomatic of more pervasive problems. And by probing warning signs, you may find that an easy fix preempts further trouble.

There’s a story told about the early days of The New Yorker magazine, when it was strapped for resources, and editor Harold Ross demanded to know why staff writer Dorothy Parker hadn’t come into the office. She replied, “someone was using the pencil.” Make sure what you are calling a “behavior problem” isn’t something that can be easily corrected by providing the right tools, resources or simple perks your people need. Many companies find that the addition of good-quality espresso machine saves time lost to Starbucks runs.

4. Look in the mirror.

Whenever I read an article like the one I’m writing now, I think “I know someone exactly like that!” We’ve all rubbed shoulders with a person who’s caught in the “sorry pattern,” and it’s easy to point fingers. Before you do, consider whether your behavior is giving employees the idea that certain types of misconduct will be overlooked. Do you play the “sorry card” too often? When you are late to a colleague’s meeting or have to change plans completely, is it the exception or the rule? It may be a good exercise to look at your own “excuse responses.”

It’s no secret that employees look to leadership to model acceptable, desired behavior. Leaders who work hard but are empathetic to the team’s needs encourage that behavior in others. Bullies beget bullies. Managers who emphasize speed over diligence and quality must ultimately own the errors that their team will inevitably make.

I hope you don’t have to deal with the habitual “I’m sorry” offender. But if and when you do, it’s better to act sooner than later. Whether it’s an outlier, a dear colleague, or that well-meaning person in the mirror, take action. Don’t feel sorry about x, y or z. Solve for it.

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