Dear Crucial Skills,
I recently worked on a very complex and emotional employee issue. I strongly believed the employee needed to be fired—and that was the ultimate outcome—but the employee’s manager and vice president strongly disagreed with me. I stand by my decision, but greatly regret how I bullied my way through our shared experience. I behaved like a bulldozer, insisted on my decision being accepted, and actually lost my temper.
Fortunately, I have many years of work experience with these peers and our work relationship has not suffered, but I want to repair the damage and I want to learn from this experience so I don’t ever repeat this behavior. I’m not accustomed to losing my cool so I don’t know how to make it right. Where do I start?
In ongoing relationships, it’s so much easier to let bygones be bygones and let our mistakes and interpersonal problems pass away. You are wise to avoid this easier course. Strong reactions often change our view of others, especially when those reactions are unusual. Your coworkers might be creating stories about you in their minds that could undermine your relationship with them.
You mentioned you are not accustomed to losing your cool. Over time, we get used to the behavior of those we interact with. We come to understand how we each operate and learn what to expect of each other. When someone acts “out of character” or in an unexpected way, we have to rethink our view of the other person to accommodate the unexpected behavior. This is when new stories are created—for better or for worse.
For example, let’s say I’m having a bad day. My alarm clock didn’t go off, I dropped my toast on the floor butter side down, and on top of all this, someone cut me off in traffic. I’m grumpy, so in our team meeting, I’m curt with Jeff, I roll my eyes at Sally, and I angrily tell Sanja his proposal is stupid. This is unusual behavior on my part. I’m usually a nice guy.
Because this behavior is out of the ordinary, people take notice. Jeff thinks, “Aaaaaaah, a chink in his armor. I knew he wasn’t perfect. He has big weaknesses and I’m going to report them on his 360 degree survey.” Sally thinks, “He pretends to be nice, but now the real Ron comes out. He’s been hiding it this whole time. Now we see the real, mean Ron revealed.” Meanwhile, Sanja says, “Hmmmm, Ron’s acting weird today. He’s usually so nice. He must be having a bad day.” Sanja quickly forgets and forgives my bad behavior.
Seeing me behave in an unusual way puts my coworkers on alert. They try to make sense of this and tell themselves stories, which in turn affect how they feel and how they will treat me in the future. My strong reaction is an occasion for people to recreate their stories about me; it also provides an opportunity for me to help shape these stories.
Sincerely apologize. You are wise not to let this incident become an undiscussable and let confusion form their stories of you. I suggest you begin with a sincere apology. There might be an advantage to talking with both the manager and vice president together, given that they were both involved. If they hear the same thing from you at the same time, this could also strengthen your accountability to them.
Such an apology might sound like this: “Thank you for meeting with me. I want to talk with the two of you about the situation with Todd. As I’ve thought through what happened, I realize I lost my temper. I insisted on my decision and even bullied both of you—behaving more like a bulldozer than a teammate. I’m very sorry; I shouldn’t have treated you that way.”
If you have a reasonably good relationship with someone, and then slip up, a sincere apology usually acts as a reset button. You get to start over. If, however, you are in a damaged, troubled relationship, a simple apology may be seen as insincere and maybe even manipulative. You need to avoid this possibility by stating your intent then consistently behaving as you promised.
It seems you have a good relationship with your coworkers because you said your relationship “has not suffered,” so let’s assume they receive your apology as sincere. Now is the time to set new expectations so the story they tell themselves is that your “bullying” was an exception, not the new rule.
Share your good intentions. “After a good deal of reflection, I stand by my decision to fire Todd, but I realize the way I went about it was wrong. I desire to be collaborative and listen completely to both of you as well as to others. Going forward, let me tell you what you can expect from me. I will not push my point of view at your expense. I will not bulldoze or bully and will instead seek a healthy dialogue. I will seek a deep understanding of your point of view and will share mine respectfully. If I slip from this resolve, please help me by reminding me of this commitment and I’ll quickly return to dialogue.”
These simple skills, sincerely used, can dramatically reframe relationships. Of course, now the hard work begins. It’s not critical that you are perfect every day in every way; but it is crucial that others see your efforts to keep your word. When you mess up, apologize in the moment (reset) and start over. This way, others will see that you value your efforts to keep your word more than you value saving face or looking good. Leaders and friends make sacrifices for what they truly value. When you sacrifice your ego to the value of keeping your word, trust and respect result.
All the best,