Gratitude and Apology

Last week at the office I made coffee, realized the creamer display was empty, refilled it, and spent several minutes unsuccessfully trying to get the box to fit back into the cupboard so the door would close. I finally gave up and resolved that I would mention it to the receptionist – duly apologetic, of course. Just then she walked into the kitchen to do the restocking so I mentioned it, she looked, saw it, and said, “Oh, thanks – I’ll take care of it.” Her tone was cheerful and there was nothing in the whole exchange that seemed to require a second thought.

Except five minutes later another member of the admin staff walked into my office. Apparently she had happened to be walking past as it took place and found it offensive. She thought my request was disrespectful – as if I thought it was the receptionist’s “job” to do that. She made a point of saying that she didn’t care about “whose job it is,” she just does whatever is needed, and would have kept working at the box until it fit. She then asked, in a tone that implied she already knew the answer and it wasn’t good, if I would have just left it that way [indefinitely].

I was completely flummoxed. For one thing – it is the receptionist’s job to refill the various items and keep the kitchen clean. But if I had meant that in a derogatory way, I wouldn’t have refilled the cream in the first place. Still, after the first shock and defensive reaction wore off, I was able to assure her that I hadn’t meant any disrespect, but that I could see where she was coming from (sort of true… if I tilted my head to the side and squinted really hard…) and appreciated her coming to me about it rather than stewing (which is absolutely true).

The conversation ended on a softer tone than it began so I counted that as a success and then stared off into space for several minutes to puzzle over the many questions it raised. On reflection I did think my manner to the receptionist might have been a little abrupt, not quite apologetic enough, and reminded myself to take the full time any interaction needs instead of rushing the warm and fuzzy bits.

Then yesterday I realized that the receptionist we have now, who seems like a very warm, nice person, thanks me profusely every time I answer the door. At first this struck me as funny. Technically, it is my job to do so. The doorbell rings to the admin phones (including reception) and my phone, and procedure dictates that if they can’t get it on the first ring, then I answer it. And I realized – part of what makes her seem so warm and friendly is that she thanks me for doing things that are my job. People who don’t do that, who take that for granted (and I include myself in this group) often seem just a little colder.

All of which illuminates something I’ve been wondering about for years. I know someone who was an absolute delight to work for, even when he was doing things that made my job harder, and I could never quite figure out why or how that could be. Leadership books like to talk about influence and connection and that’s all well and good, but how, I wondered, did he create connection even when all the interaction we ever had was limited to 30 seconds at a time as I chased down his expense reports?

I think it’s actually a simple answer in two parts. First, he was always sheepishly apologetic, and delivered this in a very genuine way. He knew he was being difficult and felt bad about it. Second, this was accompanied by profuse gratitude for the patience of the people putting up with him, the work they did on his behalf, and so on. Both were wrapped up together in an effusive little package and expressed before, during and after someone took care of something for him. Every time.

Ran across a quote about a good example of historical leadership: “The people cheered. They felt validated. They felt understood.” Displaying an awareness of what you’re asking someone to do, and that they have other things going on too, and expressing gratitude for them putting that on hold to help you, seems to be one easy way of creating that connection and good will.

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