I was listening to a radio talk show recently, and the host/leader and his team were reminiscing about the early days of the show and some of their struggles. One of the team members brought up an incident where several years earlier the host asked the team member to leave the studio and get him coffee in the middle of the show. I could hear the emotion of the team member and how, at the time, he was hurt by this and could tell that it still bothered him a bit. He articulated how expendable he felt that the host didn’t seem to need him in the studio while the show was being broadcast. The exchange that followed was a great lesson in leadership communication. The host got a bit defensive and went on for a few minutes explaining his rationale as to why he asked him to get coffee and defending that it was an acceptable thing to do under the circumstances. I understood his logic and why he did what he did at the time. What was completely lost on the host is that the team member was emotionally bothered by the incident – then and now! The team member didn’t need to hear an explanation or supporting evidence as to why it was okay … he wanted someone to address his feelings which the host never did – not then and not now.

Here is what the host needed to do …
1. Recognize this was an emotional upset, not a rational one
2. Respond with emotion, not logic and facts
3. Make a comment and/or gesture to address the emotions as a first step toward resolving the situation

Here are some things the host/leader could have done:
– Said, “I’m sorry that I hurt your feelings by asking you to get me coffee during the show. That wasn’t my intention. I apologize.”
– Bring his team member a coffee (or his favorite beverage) the next day
– Both of the above

Perhaps the host realized his mistake and addressed it later. I hope he did.

This is a great lesson for leaders. Leaders need to be careful with how they treat employees with their actions and words. But, leaders will make mistakes … it’s inevitable. The important thing is recognizing the mistakes or, when they are brought to your attention, addressing them appropriately. If a person or group is upset, the leader needs to address their emotions before he/she can resolve the situation. Trying to “logic” your way through it may only deepen the hurt. Addressing the emotions first, in many cases, will help resolve the situation. Acknowledging feelings or simply saying “I’m sorry” can completely disarm an emotionally charged employee or colleague, and, if done in a truly heartfelt way, can energize them.

I witnessed such a moment early in my career when I was working on a team resolving a problem with one of our products in manufacturing. During a meeting, there was a heated exchange between a very senior scientist and a less senior engineer. The scientist called out the engineer on some technical shortcomings, and embarrassed him in front of the team. He was right on a couple of matters but not all of them. At the next day’s meeting, the scientist could tell the engineer was reeling, the team was on edge, and that he was wrong in calling him out publicly. He gave a heartfelt apology to the engineer in front of the whole team that was accepted by the engineer, disarmed the situation, and put the issue behind the team so we could move forward in resolving the manufacturing problem.

Communication is critical for effective leadership. It is multi-faceted and being skillful in all facets is vital. Simple things like those discussed above can make the difference between engaging an employee or demoralizing them, which can affect the productivity of the employee, their team and their organization.