On Leadership – April

Wonder Bad Doesn’t Have to Be Permanent*

No matter how experienced we are, there are times we blow it.  But, that bad time doesn’t have to poison relationships with those with whom we work and for whom we have the responsibility to lead.  These excerpts from Bill Rosenthal on October 30th, 2013  “How to Communicate After a Train Wreck” offers clear ways to  lessen the fallout from a fiasco.


  • Deliver the bad news quickly because unless you do resentment will grow and you’ll look like you’re unable to handle the situation. Describe the scope of the problem fully, concisely and without evasive Dilbert-speak. “There’s no sugar-coating it. The website has been too slow. People are getting stuck during the application process,” Obama said.
  • Take personal responsibility. The problem may have had many causes, but excessive attention to them might imply you’re ducking responsibility.
  • Explain your personal feelings about the issue. If you feel angry, say so. “Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website is not working as well as it should,” Obama said. Don’t dwell on your feelings, though, because you might give the impression that you’re sorrier for yourself than for the others who were affected. Commenting on the Gulf Coast oil spill, BP CEO Tony Hayward properly said, “We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. There is no one who wants this over more than I do.” But then he added an unnecessary and ultimately self-damaging, “I would like my life back.”
  • Describe what you’re doing about the problem, but be careful not to raise unrealistic expectations.
  • If you’re making a person-to-person apology, look the other person in the eye.If you’re apologizing to a group meet the eyes of every member of the group, one person at a time. You can’t make an effective apology when you’re angry. Let your anger subside before you attempt it. And, of course, you should never apologize with e-mail.
  • Listen fully to the complaint and let the other party make its case. Resist the temptation to defend yourself until the other party has finished. Show that you’re listening with nods and other facial expressions and by paraphrasing what you’re hearing. If you don’t understand completely, ask for clarification.
  • There’s a difference between “I’m sorry” and “I apologize.” The former describes your feelings about what happened, but it may not be enough if the other party was angry or deeply disappointed and expects a sincere apology. Saying “I’m sorry you feel that way” is even worse because it might imply that you feel the other person is offended without real cause. There’s also a difference between “mistakes were made,” which often is used by people trying to avoid responsibility, and “I made a mistake.”
    Don’t be afraid to apologize or admit a mistake. Don’t begin the discussion by saying something like “I understand from Joe that there’s an issue here.” This is a disservice to Joe, and the party you’re addressing might bristle at the word “issue.” If you caused a problem, acknowledge that it’s a problem.
  • Give the other party an opportunity to ask questions about your explanationYour boss or a customer will feel free to ask questions but your staff might not; make it clear to them that you welcome questions. Don’t count on the power of your position to help you resolve the problem. You might get angry questions from those you offended, but be sure to maintain your composure. Anticipate the questions that might be asked and prepare concise, persuasive answers to them.


*Plan now to attend the Conference on English Leadership Institute on Critical Issues July 17 – 19 2014 at Elmhurst College, near Chicago.  The issue this year is ASSESSMENT/EVALUATION and will be addressed in three general strands: Using Formative and Summative Assessments to Improve Teaching, Assessment of Teachers Evaluation, and Assessment of Curriculum Programs.  CEL invites teams and individuals eager to explore and plan concrete strategies to implement right away.  In addition to daily keynote speakers on important aspects of assessment, the Institute will feature focused, collaborative work with literacy leaders from across the country. See  http://www.ncte.org/cel for specific details.



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