"You worked there a long time... is there anything you regretted after you were gone?"
I left the company for another job ten years ago, but I still run into ex-coworkers. Usually those conversations follow the, "Hey, have you heard about the (latest stupid management decision) at the plant?"
This question was different.
I didn't answer, but I did think about it later. I don't really regret strategic errors or poor tactical decisions or career missteps (and I sure made a bunch of those.) Certainly did then, not so much now.
Instead I most regret things I didn't say: To employees who reported to me, to peers, and to a person I worked for. Those are moments I'd like to have back.
It's too late for me, but not for you. Here are five things you should say, today, to people you work with:
- "I'm sorry I didn't..." Admit it. There are things you need to apologize for: Words, actions, omissions, failing to step up or step in or be supportive... Bite the bullet and say you're sorry. And don't follow up your apology with a disclaimer like, "But you upset me..." or "I thought you were..." or any statement that somehow places a little of the blame back on the other person. Say you're sorry, say why you're sorry, and take all the blame. No less, no more.
- "That was awesome how you..." No one receives enough praise. No one. Pick someone who did something well and tell them. And feel free to go back in time. Saying, "I was just thinking about how you took care of that problem last year..." can make just as positive an impact today as it would have then. (Maybe a little more -- because you still remember what happened a year later.) Surprise praise is a gift that costs the giver nothing but is priceless to the recipient.
- "Can you help me...?" One of my biggest regrets is not asking a fellow supervisor for help. I was given the lead on a project he really wanted, yet he swallowed his pride and told me he would be happy to help in any way he could. Even though I could tell he really wanted to participate, I never let him. I wanted to show I could handle the project alone and let my ego be more important than his feelings. Asking someone for help implicitly recognizes their skills and value. Saying, "Can you help me?" is the same as saying, "You're awesome at that," with a bonus: You get help.
- "Can I help you...?" Then flip it around. Asking for help is perceived as a sign of weakness in many organizations, so many people naturally hesitate. But everyone needs help. Don't just say, "Do you need any help?" Most people will reflexively say, "No, I'm all right." Be specific. Look around -- somewhere, someone needs a little assistance. Say, "I've got a few minutes... can I help you finish that?" Just be sure to offer in a way that feels collaborative, not patronizing or gratuitous.
- "I'm sorry I let you down." I was assigned a project in a different department, a project I didn't want. I let it slide, let other people take up my slack, and focused on projects I was more interested in. My manager was trying to get me broader exposure and had stuck his neck out to get me the project but I, well, didn't care. Eventually he said, "They know you're really busy and they've decided to handle it themselves." I felt bad but I never said, "Dennis, I know you were trying to help me. I'm sorry I let you down. I promise it will never happen again." That one statement would have chased a very large elephant from the room. The biggest elephants are emotional elephants. It's up to you to chase yours away.
And maybe an even bigger impact on your own.
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