It is never wrong to say, “I am sorry.” After the last three years, which have been very tough, forgiveness may be needed. I got an early view of research that will be released in a few months. Things have changed quite a bit with employee engagement. With the many changes made, at times hour to hour, the issue of trust is a common theme. People wonder: Can I trust the CEO’s information? Is the senior leadership team aware of what we (frontline workers) have gone through and still are going through? Will we ever not be short-staffed? What about supplies?
I have empathy for all involved. This includes CEOs and other people in the C-suite. Leading during Covid was so hard. There were no easy answers. Things moved quickly. I have written in the past that I don’t typically see forgiveness listed as an organizational value. If it is listed in your organization, please let me know.
About a year into Covid, I received a call from the president of an organization. The employee engagement results had come back, and they weren’t what had been hoped for. Yes, some would say the results were all due to Covid. He shared he felt it was a partial reason; however, he said he could have done better. In listening to him, it sounded like he had done plenty during that time. He made many videos and sent various communications. He did not work remotely for most of the workforce was working on site. Some things he would normally have done did decrease or stop. He was less visible as he wasn’t out and about as much. And at times he did not have an answer for items like when supplies would be available. There was some confusion on what should and should not be done due to the pandemic and safety issues. He shared that at times he waited too long looking for the answer; he should have communicated that he did not know and then shared when the next update would be.
I replied that, to me, it looked like he did as much as or more than most people in his situation. Still, my suggestion was that he hold a town hall as it was considered safe in his workplace during this time. I urged him to start out by saying, “I have reviewed the employee engagement results and am disappointed in the feedback on your communication.” Then I suggested he say these words: “I am sorry.”
At times leaders may be reluctant to say, “I am sorry.” Some say they are afraid if they admit they made a mistake there could be legal action. Some say it would create anxiety in the workforce for the CEO to make mistakes. Some just can’t admit they made a mistake. This particular CEO had a lot of humility, which is a vital quality in a leader. I suggested he explain to employees that at times information is coming in so fast and from so many sources that it is overwhelming. So, he announced in a town hall meeting that he would like their help. He then provided them real-life situations, broke the large group into smaller groups, and asked what they would recommend if similar situations occurred in the future. He also asked them to help him create a rapid response system.
The CEO got multiple wins. By sharing real-life situations, he helped the group realize that communication is not that simple. They realized the CEO had done a good job under the circumstances. The CEO ended up with a rapid response system that the employees helped develop. Many employees came up to him and said thank you. It’s important to note that the CEO did not start out the meeting explaining away the lower results. The CEO did not rationalize. The CEO started the conversation with, “I am sorry.” By being open and honest and demonstrating vulnerability, he increased trust exponentially.
Besides saying, “I’m sorry,” it is also important to connect the dots for people. There are many headlines around companies letting employees go. There are reports of organizations losing millions of dollars. It is not unusual that while those announcements are being made, there is also a ribbon-cutting for a multi-million-dollar construction project, a new advertising campaign, or a new product investment. This is so confusing to the workforce. They may think, If we are losing money and laying off staff, how can we build a multi-million-dollar building? The corporate world works differently from one’s personal world. If someone loses their job or takes a pay cut, they are not thinking, This is a good time to put an addition on the house. But in the case of a company, taking action to build a new building, advertise, or invest in a new product is likely what is needed. What is missing is the explanation of the expenditure.
A new building, new product, or new advertising campaign can be very exciting. Those closest to it are pumped. They believe these actions will help the organization financially, which is what is needed. The ribbon-cutting will be well attended, and people will clap. Those in the know will see the value. However, a large group of employees may not understand. Why? It could be that the reason for the action was communicated in various ways, but employees didn’t necessarily “get it.” Or maybe some feel the reason is obvious, yet it is not. The CEO usually finds out there are rumblings after the event or announcement.
Again, let’s give some grace to those in the C-suite. We all make missteps. The suggestion is to ramp up the explanation without an, “I told you so.” Apologize for not communicating as well as you could have and take time to connect the dots for people. Listening to and/or reading the apology first will lay the groundwork for more empathetic reading and listening. Empathy goes both ways.
Some closing tips:
When there is time, begin with prevention. While a new project may sound great to some, let the front line weigh in before communicating it. Take the example of a new building announcement after a downsizing or a reported financial loss. Share the situation with a diverse group of frontline workers and ask for their help. Say, “Here’s why we’re doing the new building. Please give me your feedback.” Ask them how best to communicate the situation. How would they prefer to receive the key message points? In writing this column, I wish I had done this much more in the past. I will adjust my own behavior. It is ironic that when we are crafting a message to send externally, we may use a company to poll the public and shape the messaging. We have our in-house experts right in front of us. Take time to ask for their help. There are lots of wins. The message will be better, and there is an internal support group that will help educate their coworkers.
When a mistake is made, start with an apology without a rationalization. Yes, reasons for the misstep can be provided, but first say, “I am sorry.” You can even say, “I wish I could do it over again. Here is what I learned. I hope you will forgive me.” The key is to be sincere. Then move on to how to be better.
All of this is about trust: keeping it and rebuilding it. It’s a key characteristic of any healthy relationship, whether at work or in one’s personal life. Trust can take years to build, and it can be lost in a moment. Hopefully, in most instances, it can be rebuilt. By taking steps to prevent miscommunication and by saying, “I’m sorry,” when needed, leaders can go a long way toward building and maintaining a culture of trust.