Time for a Little (or a Lot) of Self-Analysis:
The Power of Apology and the Power of Speaking Up
“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start from where you are and change the ending.” C.S. Lewis
We can all do or say things that we later come to regret, an in the moment reaction that can leave us and other people feeling anywhere from slightly uncomfortable to totally destroyed. What we do next to be able to move forward will determine how the story ends.
A Case Study: A Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda, Wish I Hadn’t Said … Story
Ray’s Story: A Monkey Could Do It Better
“A monkey could do it better”
Ray could not believe the words that had come out of his mouth. Neither could his team who at first laughed because they thought it was joke, but seeing the look on Jake’s face – who was on the receiving end of this feedback – quickly realised it was not a joking matter.
Afraid of what else he might say, Ray decided he needed to take five, remove himself from the situation, and so he took a walk.
But let’s back up a little to: Ray’s Story: A Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda, Wish I Hadn’t Said … Case Study.
Ray was the manager of a team of twenty people within Operations in a leading investment bank in the City in London. He had been with the bank for over thirty years. In his earlier days and younger years he had been a trader at the front end of things. It was a demanding role that was high powered and fast paced, which Ray enjoyed for the first few years; but after that the stresses of the job became too much for him, and he reached burnout. The burnout was quite severe, and he needed to take a one-year sabbatical.
Ahead of returning from his sabbatical, Ray met with his manager to discuss his future with the bank. His manager was very supportive. Ray was a good guy, intelligent, hardworking and brought a lot to the organisation. Ray knew he wanted to get away from trading and from client-facing roles. He wanted to move into what was then known as the back office, and so he took on a role in compliance. Although it was very static and process-driven, it suited Ray. He was good with analysis and enjoyed it. More importantly it helped to restore Ray’s confidence in himself.
But Ray’s career did not remain static. With the support of his manager, over time and over the years Ray worked in a number of different functions within the bank. This allowed him to continue to develop and to learn new skills, which kept him motivated.
In all of these roles Ray was an individual contributor, and this suited him very well, he had no interest in managing people. Then the financial crisis hit, causing downsizing and restructuring with the bank going through a merger. A number of people Ray had worked with for many years who were not on board with the merger jumped ship, and as a result along with losing good people, the bank also lost years of important knowledge. Because of his in-depth knowledge having worked across several functions Ray found himself being promoted from individual contributor to manager.
Some of the positions that had become vacant were filled from the merging company, and some were filled by people working in other areas of Ray’s existing bank. This was how Ray inherited Jake, who had been working with the bank for over fifteen years. He was a good guy and everybody liked him.
Although known for having a good work ethic, his work from the day he joined Ray’s team was not good. He was continuously missing targets, which impacted the team, and this is what caused Ray’s outburst. He was at the end of his tether with Jake. Another late report ahead of an important meeting was the final straw, and led to those fateful words coming out of Ray’s mouth: “A monkey could do it better”.
Seeing the look on Jake’s and the rest of the team’s faces following on from his outburst, together with the anger Ray was feeling towards Jake in that moment, Ray knew he needed to take a walk to distance himself from the immediate situation, to calm down and to gather his thoughts.
‘Walking Meditation’ is how Ray thought of this practice. It was a strategy his manager Nora introduced him to all those years ago when he was returning from his sabbatical, and one that had served him well at times when he had felt overwhelmed, when he needed to turn off his self-talk and his thinking. Ray thought of Nora not only as his manager, but also his mentor and friend. Although she had long since retired, her wisdom remained with Ray throughout his WorkLife. It was something that he could tap into when he needed to.
The process was easy. He would begin his walk by posing a question to himself, something as simple as “What do I need to know about X (situation/person)”? or “What one action can I take today that will help with Y.” He would then switch off his mind and self-talk by focussing on the beauty of the park, and when thoughts/self-talk began to filter through, he would mentally acknowledge them, say thank you, pose the question again, and switch off again by refocusing on the beauty of his surroundings. Ray found this simple strategy quite powerful. It helped to alleviate the sense of feeling overwhelmed; and by not thinking or listening to his self-talk, the answer he needed always came to him: sometimes in the moment or soon after; most often when he was getting on with his daily life; and other times he would wake up with the solution of knowing what to do.
Ray’s focus on quieting his mind to what had just happened took his walk on autopilot on a route he took each lunchtime, through a nearby park, then past his favourite bookstore, where he often spent his breaks browsing the shelves, picking up a book, sitting and reading a chapter or two over a coffee. Ray had received the answer to the question he had posed to himself: “What the hell did I just do, how can I put this right?”
Because on becoming a manager this bookshop was where he had discovered the One Minute Manager series of books, which he had found really helpful, Ray immediately knew which of the One Minute Manager books he needed in this moment: the One Minute Apology. He entered the store, picked a copy off the shelf, got a coffee and settled down in his favourite armchair open to the learning that he knew he was about to receive though the book wisdom of the One Minute Manager.
The key points of book wisdom that came to him from reading One Minute Apology were:
- He knew he had to take full responsibility for his actions, regardless of the outcome;
- He had to apologise to Jake, and he had to do this with a sense of urgency;
- He had to demonstrate his commitment to making amends beyond this apology.
By the time Ray had finished reading it was too late to go back to the office. He knew everybody would have left for the day; and knowing what he had to do the next morning, he also knew he needed the evening to prepare mentally, which was best done away from the office.
He just needed to do a couple of things before leaving the bookstore. He messaged Jake asking him to meet early next morning before the workday began. He suggested a nearby coffee shop because this meeting needed to be away from the bank. He let his assistant know he would be late into the office, and asked that she rearrange his morning meeting.
And so at 7.30 am the next morning Ray and Jake met for coffee, and a discussion that Ray knew would not be happening if he had addressed the issues with Jake earlier on. He knew he had failed Jake, and began the meeting, having thanked Jake for agreeing to meet early, by saying: “Jake, I owe you an apology.”
Jake was taken aback. Because of Ray’s angry outburst the previous day and knowing he had screwed up with the report, he was expecting a further balling out.
Ray continued: “I’ve let you down in so many ways. You’ve always done great work in the past. That changed in the last year. Your work has been under par for some time, and I failed to address it, I failed to talk to you, I failed to ask you why this was happening, I failed to take time to understand what’s been going on for you that was contributing to this. You’ve been loyal to the bank for so many years, you’ve been a great contributor, you’ve done great work, and I’ve let you down by not taking the time to talk to you, when clearly something was not right. I am sincerely sorry I’ve let you down so badly.”
Although taken aback for the second time within minutes, Ray’s apology – which immediately struck Jake as being both sincere and humble – caused Jake to blurt out everything that he had been carrying around since he had taken on his new role. Although Jake was visibly upset, Ray’s apology gave him the courage to speak up, together with a sense of knowing that he needed to do this for his self-esteem, and that this was his time to speak up. He responded to Ray’s apology by saying:
“I wish you had talked to me, I wish somebody had talked to me instead of making assumptions. I wanted to leave, when the others left. I wanted to leave, but then I was offered a role on your team, and told how much I was valued for my loyalty, and everybody assumed that’s what I wanted. It wasn’t, but I didn’t have the courage to leave or to speak up. I’ve hated every moment of this merger. The people on our team are all good people, but I miss everyone who has left. I was expected to be able to pick up my new role straightaway because of my knowledge of the business, but the work is so different to my old role, and I’ve been out of my depth since day one, but nobody said anything, and I wasn’t offered any help. I assumed you were OK with me getting up to speed. But I could see by the look on everyone’s faces yesterday that they weren’t surprised by what you said. They all looked sorry for me. Why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t anybody say something? I thought you all liked me. You must of all seen that I was out of my depth. If only someone had offered to help. Instead I’ve become a laughingstock, someone to pity.”
Ray knew this was the conversation he should have had with Jake a long time ago, in the same way his manager had taken the time to talk to him all those years ago when he was struggling, when he was in a role that was not right for him.
Ray spent the next two hours listening and talking to Jake: really listening to understand what was going on with him. By the end of the conversation Ray had learnt so much about Jake that he had not known before. Things he could have, would have, and should have known, had he taken the time to have a career conversation with him, which would have allowed him to understand his motivations, his longer term dreams and aspirations, how these fitted with his current role, and how he could have helped Jake work towards achieving this. The more they talked the more he realised how much he had failed Jake on so many levels.
While he could not turn back time, Ray knew he needed to do what he could in this moment to help Jake, and that was to help him to move on from the Bank, which is what Jake had wanted all along. You see Jake’s real passion was art: he was an artist, and had studied Art at university. While at university he met his wife, they fell in love, got married and started a family right out of university. He made a choice to follow a WorkLife path that would allow him to support his family, and afford them a good lifestyle, and so began his career in banking. He had actually enjoyed his work to a degree because of the people he had worked with, and before the merger the work was actually OK. More importantly it had allowed him to put his children through university.
His art had become a hobby; but the burning desire to be an artist had never left him, and of late it was all he could think about. It was risky, but financially he was in an OK place. He had discussed it with his wife, and she was supportive, but Jake felt he needed a little more financial security for peace of mind. He had wanted to ask for redundancy before he was offered the role on Ray’s team. This had been offered to other people, but as nobody had asked Jake what he wanted at the time of the merger, and instead offered him a secure position, he had not wanted to seem ungrateful, and so he did not speak up.
Ray was in a position to secure a good redundancy settlement for Jake for his years of service to the bank. This is how the meeting ended, which was very different from how either Ray or Jake had anticipated it would have gone.
Ray knew if he had taken the time to talk to Jake a year earlier to understand his career aspirations, or if he had taken time to give him feedback on his work at the given opportunities over the year when Jake messed up, it would never have gotten to this, and he could have helped Jake avoid the anguish and stress he had experienced.
He knew he could have been a better manager if he had taken the time to create a culture of feedback, not just for him but also for Jake’s peers to give feedback to each other. A culture where Jake would have had the confidence to speak up, and ask for what he wanted. A culture where it would have been OK for people to say no to something they did not want to do.
Ray knew he needed to evaluate if he should in fact be a manager. Maybe he was not cut out for management. Maybe he was best suited to an individual contributor role. While Ray knew he had gotten a number of things right, he also knew he had gotten some fundamental things wrong. He knew he needed to step back to evaluate his own role and analyse what he wanted and needed to do.
There is a happy ending for both Ray and Jake’s stories.
The time Ray had spent analysing how he should have managed the situation with Jake, allowed him to recognise that he did like his job, and that he was good at it. He acknowledged he had gotten it horribly wrong with Jake, and he knew in his heart of hearts he would never allow that to happen again. To ensure it did not, he did exactly what he should have done with Jake, with the rest of the team. He set up a time to have a WorkLife conversation with everyone. He now understood their motivations, their longer dreams and aspirations, and how these fitted with their current roles. He understood how he could support them in their development in achieving this, and how this fitted into the team, department and organisation growth plans. He is working on developing a team where everyone is responsible for giving feedback to each other, and where people feel safe in speaking up.
Six months later Ray received an invitation to the opening of Jake’s first art exhibition at a renowned gallery in the City of London. On Ray’s arrival Jake greeted him warmly. Ray was struck by how good he looked, and he was blown away by Jake’s art and his talent.
Later on in the evening Jake took Ray to one side, and he thanked him for everything he had done to help him achieve this. He thanked him for forcing the issue. He laughed and jokingly thanked him for almost ‘firing’ him. He thanked him for giving him the courage to speak up and say what he really wanted and for really listening. He thanked him for the financial support he had arranged that had made it possible to move onto the new challenge that he had for so long yearned, which gave him the success he was now experiencing. He told Ray he knew he had been spinning the wheels at work, and that he had been too scared to take action, and that the space Ray had given him that morning to talk had allowed him to know what it was he needed to do.
Develop Your WorkLife Story
An apology forces us to take responsibility for our mistakes, to act with humility, sincerity and integrity. It goes to the heart of our relationships. It has the power to change our WorkLife, and the WorkLives of the people around us.
I Wish I Hadn’t Said … Assignment
Have you ever given feedback that you wish you hadn’t? Maybe you blurted something out which you later regretted. Perhaps you were under pressure or at the end of your tether. Or it could be the person just really irritated you.
Was there anything you were able to do to recover?
On reflection what would you, could you, should you have said or done differently?
Three steps you can take to move beyond this:
1. Apologise to yourself for behaviour you are not proud of;
2. Resolve to avoid repeating the behaviour;
3. Then repair the damage done to yourself and others by behaving differently.
Moral of This Story
We are all capable of not acting honestly on our own or someone else’s behalf, consciously or unconsciously, and in doing so we may have contributed to the problem. In the story both Ray and Jake recognised they could have spoken up. Speaking up can be hard, but the repercussions of not speaking up can be harder. A quote that resonated with both Ray and Jake: “At the very least, you’d be feeling better today if you had been completely honest with yourself.” The One Minute Apology.
Develop a Practice of Continuous Self-Feedback
Practice regular self-analysis by tapping into your gut instinct to acknowledge and observe your thoughts and behaviours in these situations. Then use self-feedback to evaluate what you need to do by asking yourself: What is the truth I’m not facing up to?
Developing a Practice of Insightful Self-Questioning
When situations erupt, the reality is they have very likely been bubbling beneath the surface for some time. Regular self-analysis goes a long way in preventing ‘I wish I hadn’t said’ situations. Ask yourself:
Am I contributing to the problem by not speaking up or taking action?
Words of Wisdom
Every mistake should be noticed and corrected on the spot, but you also need time for reflection. Use this time to be honest with yourself and see reality as it is.
© Carmel O’ Reilly 2019 First published 2019 by WorkLife Incorporated
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