Sometimes on family farms, where farm workers are also family members, communication issues carry the extra weight of history, past wrongs and good ol’ sibling rivalry. It’s also easy in any family business to emphasize family “issues” more than business professionalism, often to the business’ detriment.
I was going to call this post, “The Lost Art of Accepting Responsibility,” until I Googled it and found several articles by the same title. So, another one? Well, given the search results, maybe there’s a real need to be reminded of ways we can turn business and communications misunderstandings into positives:
You and I Are Not Helpless
In the work world, when we make excuses rather than accepting responsibility, we are admitting we are helpless. Helpless to avoid the situation, get out of the situation, and deal with the consequences. I’ve done it; we all have.
Somehow, in our modern culture, we’ve lost the ability or the willingness to accept responsibility. When was the last time in your business life someone genuinely, without a backhanded blame shift, apologized for “dropping the ball” or for not following through on a commitment? Why don’t we do this any more?
Don’t Accept an Obligation You Cannot Fulfill
Mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. Some are due to laziness, ignorance, misunderstanding or miscommunication, but, at the end of the day, we have to admit when we’ve failed in meeting the expectations of our job or co-workers (of course, sometimes we are the victim of unrealistic expectations).
But this leads to the first rule of not being helpless: Don’t accept an obligation you cannot fulfill. Who is responsibile to flag unrealistic expectations? If the person making the expectations wrongly assumes we can meet them, it falls on us to say, “Whoa, wait a minute, I can’t meet your expectations.”
Are we afraid of being labeled as a loser if we admit a mistake? How many times have we seen high-profile people fall from grace because they didn’t own their mistakes right away? Richard Nixon’s crimes of subversion and cover-up pale in comparison to what goes on in the modern political world, but it’s likely if he had simply confessed his mistake and rejected any plans of covering it up Watergate would have become a blip on history’s radar.
Bob Woodward, one of the journalists who shed light on the Watergate scandal, said, “Nixon’s grand mistake was his failure to understand that Americans are forgiving, and if he had admitted error early and apologized to the country, he would have escaped.”
Most of us were taught that we should learn from our mistakes: If you make one, be honest about it, and then make sure it doesn’t happen again.
How to Apologize
When we apologize, it’s tempting to say things like, “I’m sorry you took me the wrong way.” Or, “I’m sorry you are upset.” While it may sound conciliatory because the words “I’m sorry” are in there, phrases like those pass blame onto the recipient. Yet the power of a true, meaningful “I’m sorry” in healing differences is, indeed, huge. What can we apologize for in a situation involving hurt feelings or upset colleagues? How about: “I’m sorry I said something that upset you. I really want to have good communication. Can we try again?”
Resist the temptation to assign partial blame to the other person, even if they are somewhat culpable. Often times we know we’ve done wrong, but it’s not 100 percent our fault. It might be 60 percent, or maybe only 5 percent our fault. For example, if you failed to meet a deadline, but the deadline wasn’t explicitly clear, there might be room to legitimately lay a portion of the blame on the person communicating the unclear deadline.
We should deal with whatever portion of the issue we caused, period. For example, “Sally, I realized I’ve missed today’s deadline, I’m terribly sorry. That’s unacceptable. I’d like a chance to do better. Would it be OK if I got the project to you tomorrow?” Now is not the time to point out Sally’s lack of clarity on the deadline. Besides, you could have flagged that at the time the assignment was given.
Finally, when someone genuinely admits wrong and accepts responsibility, reward that with gracious forgiveness and move on. You’d want the other person to do the same for you.
After awhile, apologizing and moving on can become the new normal around the office, the farm or the kitchen table.