ORG Blog

The Hardest Leadership Word

How powerful they are. Individual alphabetic letters we put together to form words, some full of promise, others fraught with nuance and innuendo. Simple words when strung together declare war and proclaim peace; foster relationships and tear them apart. Put to paper, they are political manifesto, contracts that bind, poetry and prose. Uttered aloud, they incite riots, inspire greatness, challenge our belief systems in necessary ways. Put to music, they remind us of our allegiances, make our souls sing, our toes tap. We choose them with care and thought, also with reckless disregard.  They are powerful indeed, and often under-estimated.  Here is a case in point.

After several months of careful exploration, a group of labor and management leaders formed a team to lead a change process aimed at creating a collaborative culture to improve both the quality of work life and operational performance.  They defined the future state they wanted to create; openly discussed the barriers they would have to overcome; set in motion specific work groups to address several areas of opportunity; painstakingly built a strategic plan to focus their efforts and keep their change process on track. They progressed well, and quickly became a Best Practice others sought to emulate.

Then it happened: the inevitable “break point.” They occur in every organizational change process. Some unforeseen issue or event emerges to challenge the fledgling collaborative effort; to test the mettle of the leaders; to call into question the level of commitment the management and labor institutions really have toward the process they have set in motion.

In the case of this maturing collaborative leadership team, the “break” stemmed from a management decision to implement a policy. It was well within their management right to do so, and by all accounts after the fact, was based on a well-reasoned approach. Problem was, management failed to give its labor counterparts a heads-up, so as word of the policy change began hitting the field, labor leaders got blindsided.

Members started calling union reps in the field, who in turn called the national labor leaders, using language that harkened back to the days of adversarial rather than progressive labor-management relationships.

But just before the heat got ratcheted up another notch, Labor took a breath. Instead of running the familiar litany of accusations and attributions, they placed a call to the management leaders. Not only did they get the facts of what happened (which of course were slightly different from the “spin” in the field), they got something really surprising.

An apology.

“I got sucked into the emergency of the moment and I didn’t think to give them the heads-up call they deserved,” the vice president said, noting that many union members were skeptical about the collaborative process and not in favor of labor’s support for it. “I unintentionally put them in a bad spot and I failed to model the collaborative behaviors we wanted other leaders to adopt.”

The apology and explanation from the vice president cleared the air, and cleared the way for the parties to have a rational conversation. They talked through what had happened and how, shared factual information they needed to get out to the field, and hatched a plan together about how to get the policy implemented, and how to help employees understand the need for it. Problem solved; collaborative process salvaged.

At the next meeting of the leadership team, they deconstructed what occurred and captured the Lessons Learned. One of the labor leaders shared an important insight: “If we’re not willing to be a little bit vulnerable with one another, we’ll never build the trust we need to sustain collaboration long term. An authentic ‘I’m sorry’ was all I needed to hear.”

Share your thoughts: Is ‘Sorry’ the hardest word to say? And if not, what tops your list of Hardest Words for Leaders to Say?

Cathy Wright

Partner - Overland Resource Group

Topics: Collaboration Labor Management Sustainable Change