Friday, October 9, 2015

Saying “Sorry” is Just Not Enough

We all screw up.  We all make mistakes. Some of us more often than others. Some mistakes are made knowingly and some creep up on us. Some are small and some are monumental.  Some cause minor aches and some causing serious damage.  Not just to customers, but also to people, and often to the company.

I have made all these types of mistakes.

I believe that when confronted with the knowledge that a mistake has been made, I have two choices. Either I can be defensive, deny the mistake, and take no responsibility for it, or I can own up to it and take corrective action.

I believe that if I am really sorry, I need to do more than just say “Sorry”.  Here is what I have done - some or all of them - depending on the severity of the mistake.
  1. Admit the mistake. I need to first admit to myself that there has been a mistake.  I have to wade thru the “It wasn’t me alone”, the “but the environment made it so”, or the “there was nothing else I could do” scenarios.  I have to reject any excuses that popup in my head.  “I am sorry for xxx. That happened because of yyy”, is not accepting that I have made a mistake! Whatever be the reasons for the mistake, I need to admit to myself first that they were made, and then plan on how to admit it to those who have been affected by the mistake.
  2. Feel Remorse. When I make a mistake I feel embarrassed.  I feel
    ashamed. Physically, I feel a dull ache in my gut.  I feel my face flushing.  But all this is not feeling remorse. Remorse is much more – it is when I put myself in someone else’s shoes, and feel the impact of my mistake on them, and thru that empathy find a way or ways to fix the impact of my mistake, even if it costs me.  Remorse hurts at many levels.  And it should.
  3. Find the right place (quiet and private). Feeling is all well and good, but the person / persons who are affected by my mistake need to know that I am truly sorry for the mistake.  The best is to find a quiet place, one that is private and apologize.  Meeting / conference rooms are great, if you don’t want to go to someone’s cabin (for fear that you may be asked to leave even before you get to really apologizing).
  4. Find the right time to apologize. I have often chosen to apologize to someone after they have had coffee or lunch – I find that a full stomach helps them be more receptive.  Apologizing at the end of a tiring day is a bad idea.  For me and the person I am apologizing to.
  5. Do it in Person. Always apologize in person (if you can).  Don't hide behind an email or a phone line.  And for someone like me, who finds writing sometimes easier than talking, this is a hard one.  I have often written my apologies, not to send, but to practice what to say face-to-face. If I am unsure of how to apologize, I spend hours going over the situation and what could be said, in my head.  It is, real, virtual role playing.
  6. Look people in the eye while apologizing.  Yes, apologizing is hard.  It makes me feel vulnerable, admit to others that I am vulnerable. I want to avoid it. I normally want to run away, or hope that the ground opens up and swallows me.  But there is no way to avoid apologizing if I want to learn and grow from my mistakes.  So, no looking at the floor. No shifting from foot to foot. I stand / sit straight, shoulders back, hands clasped behind my back or on my lap, and lock eyes. 
  7. Understand why the mistake happened. Mistakes happen for a variety of reasons. I have found the best way to understand why I made a mistake is to do a root cause analysis, and understand the drivers that led to the mistake.  Often, it helps having a friend or coach ask me the right questions so that I can get to the real reasons. Sometimes I will follow the 5 why drill-down method till I get to the real reason/s. 
  8. Acknowledge how it has affected the person/s who is impacted. State how it has affected them.  Saying “I know that you have been affected by…..” is not enough.  I find that when I am specific about what I believe to be the impact on others, the better my learning from the situation. So saying “I know that my mistake embarrassed you in front of …..” or “I know I cost the company to lose xxx rupees” acknowledges real impact.
  9. Make amends. While apologizing, I state what I will do to fix the situation.  These are specific actions.  There are also details of resources or help needed.  Ideally, I have timelines for most actions and I will state them.  I want my amends to be real amends. And I want people to know that I have thought it thru and a firm idea and focus on how to fix it.
  10. Listen to what they have to say, for I may have got it wrong. It is possible, and it has happened with me, that the reason for a mistake, or, how it has impacted people has been off the mark.  I have had to take a step back, and rethink the whys and hence the real impact of the mistake.  This makes the time to complete an apology-and-amends longer, but so be it. I don’t know it all. I don’t understand it all.
  11. Express my intent to change. This is a toughie.  This is the phase where I acknowledge what I need to do to change myself.  What I need to do more of (utilizing my strengths) and less of (avoiding my blind spots or shining a light on them). Some of these are so personal that I don’t say them out loud.  But telling people what I want to change, helps me change faster for I have their support.
  12. Ask for forgiveness.  Literally. When I say the words, I see the difference it makes. And if I don’t get a response, I think it is OK to ask if I am forgiven. But I have to be ready for someone to say “No” or that it will take time. I can’t expect instant forgiveness. I have to remember that I have hurt someone and that it is always takes time to recover from hurt. Also, actions and behavior over a period of time is the best way to prove that things are really changing. 
  13. Express why I am grateful that they are a part of my life. An apology is always more effective if the affected party understands that I need them in my life, whether professionally or personally. It also helps them invest time and energy in the process of fixing a mistake, in helping me change and grow.  It also helps me get a real response to “Tell me what I can do to make amends.”
  14. Learn to never make the mistake again.  Understanding the real reasons for a mistake, and then making amends, with the help of the affected people, helps me learn how not to make the same mistake again. I want my amends to be lifelong.  I want them to change me.

It is how I say and show that I am sorry, it is how I fix mistakes and learn never to make them again, that makes the difference.

Saying “Sorry” is not enough!

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