Sorry is not the final word, just the beginning

Sorry - by spud murphy via Flickr
Sorry - by spud murphy via Flickr

After years of managing online products and projects, you’d think it would become old hat… but never, not for this gal. There’s always something new to learn, and a different twist on old scenarios, if you’re open to them. People and team dynamics are endlessly fascinating, and you never know how it’s going to go until you’re right in the midst of it all.

I once had an Enterprise-wide initiative and program which involved multiple cross-functional teams and stakeholders in different states across the country. It was somewhat challenging because of the various timezones and varying processes regarding the different groups, but nothing compared to the “large” personalities present on my project team. Sound familiar, folks?! (By “large,” I mean outspoken stakeholders who need their egos stroked accordingly.)

Sam was an Information Security Officer working on my team, who lived in Arizona. All I knew about him was that he loved playing golf, had 4 children, and routinely worked from home. He was a crackerjack security expert and liked to throw his weight around during discussions. My manager had warned me about him, so I was in the habit of treating him with kid gloves from the get-go. We needed his buy-in in order to get our security plans approved for our online platform, and I didn’t want to risk alienating him. Without his review of the security plans, you guessed it – no Go Live and a potential project showstopper.

At one point in the project, Sam and I had a difference of opinion on a conference call, and I managed to upset him and in his perception, make him lose face in front of the other team members. He would not return my calls afterwards, and I was worried. You guessed it – I am a consummate worrywart, and sometimes I think PMs need to be champion worriers since sometimes everything goes wrong on projects (hopefully all that you were able to predict and plan mitigation for.) And yes, I can attest to losing sleep and getting gray hair per project issue.

After thinking about the conundrum for a few days, I wrote him a short email and left another voicemail, telling him I was sorry for what had happened, and wanting to put this behind us. Fortunately enough, I was slated to visit Phoenix to see some friends and relatives, and I suggested getting together in person for coffee.

Sam called and told me that he worked from home, about an hour from the company’s data center. I told him no problem; I was willing to drive up there to the boonies. “I’m really sorry, Sam,” I said. He heard the genuine concern in my voice and relented, “I was having a bad day. I’ll meet you at the mall near the office at Starbucks.”

The meeting was supposed to last only 15 minutes, but he kept me there for almost 2 hours. And we were good buddies by the end of the conversation, and have stayed friends ever since. In fact, he has recommended me for several other projects within the company, and I’m grateful for his endorsement.

It’s amazing to me that in American business today, some of the hardest words to say are “I’m sorry.” It’s almost as if an admission of asking for forgiveness is tantamount to being weak or ineffective. As Project Managers, we need to learn to put our egos aside and practice “Servant Leadership.” Our function is to remove obstacles so the team can get to work, not become them. And a true leader needs to be able to work with everyone, not just the chosen few.


13 thoughts on “Sorry is not the final word, just the beginning”

  1. Pingback: سیاره مدیریت پروژه فارسی » Blog Archive » What Do Leaders Think When They Make a Mistake?

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    Anuradha (Anu) Subramanian

    Sandra, I remember when I faced this kind of situation I didn’t ask for an apology, but I did tell the person involved that what they did was “not cool”. I think it’s best to talk about this kind of this as openly as possible (without offending anyone) and get it out of the way. It helps clear the air. I got an apology out of it, but there’s no guarantee of that.

  3. I don’t have a problem with apologizing as much as I do with asking for an apology from someone. I end up feeling resentful and I suspect that they’re just oblivious to the idea that they might owe me an apology. Do you ask?

  4. User Avatar
    Anuradha (Anu) Subramanian

    What a wonderful post ! I’d like to point out that project leaders set an example when they step down from their pedestals and reach out in this manner. Besides being the right thing to do, it sets the right tone for the project team. It inspires others to treat each other with respect.

  5. Hey Lisa,

    Thanks for sharing your story. Apologies are very powerful when it does not stop at merely a sorry. We need to be willing to make an effort to set things right. Everyone makes mistakes but not all realize or accept that they do. That is the first step.

    Actually, I was surprised when I read this post as I have written a similar piece on The Power of Apologies on my site the day before. Pls do read it at and drop in your feedback + spread the word. I hope our 2 posts reach out to a larger audience.


  6. Pingback: Links for June 14 2009 | Eric D. Brown - Technology, Strategy, People & Projects

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    Lisa, your blog has inspired me to apologize for a mistake I was tempted to sweep under the rug. I’ll have a chance to do that tomorrow in Osaka. Thanks for the reminder to accept and deal with our imperfections as human beings and “make it right” when we mess up. – Scrappy Kimberly

  8. Great story! Yes, I agree with the comments above that we can all relate to an experience like this. This reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about lately that it is the project manager’s role to be the ‘adult’ in the situation. Among other things, this means that you can’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong or apologize for something. I’m sure we all have worked for childish people at one time or another, and it’s our job to take the high road.

  9. Everyone should read this. So many times, leaders feel like they have to come across as infallible to their teams and stakeholders. I’ve seen it more than once where people won’t admit they were wrong, or even if they weren’t wrong, apologize for upsetting someone like you did in this story.

    I recently received a promotion and a team member asked me a question I didn’t know the answer to. “I thought you were supposed to know everything now!” she joked.

    “No, here’s how it works. The higher you go, the less omniscient you become.”

    -The way I look at it, it’s my job to admit I’m wrong or don’t know…even if it’s not the case for the good of my team and the project.

    Josh Nankivel
    pmStudent on twitter

  10. Anyone in project management (or any management) for some time can relate to and probably relate a story or two of their own like this one. It is a common saga especially on large projects with widely distributed teams.

    Lisa was not only spot on going for the face-to-face but “lucky” as well. A personal trip was planned within an appropriate time frame to the remote location… The face time was both timely and fortuitous and Lisa gave up some personal time to resolve the conflict quickly and effectively. This is not a viable option in all projects with distributed teams.

    One of the hidden “costs” in widely distributed teams is a lack of personal connection and interaction — collaboration, understanding, and building of mutual respect is more difficult and prone to issues that can easily derail a project. Projects ignore this risk at their peril — as Lisa pointed out, Sam held a “go/no go” authority for project go-live.

    While creatively handling a crisis of this nature when it occurs is a good thing, and “people skills” are critical for project managers, it is even more critical to plan and allow continuous personal collaboration among project teams through face time from the start. Mitigation instead of contingency.

    Yes, there is a cost but the risk is worth it.

    How would this story end if Lisa had been unable to have that face time with Sam?

    How long would the conflict continue and at what cost to the project?

    1. User Avatar

      Hi Woody,

      Thanks for this comment.

      A little background – The company mentioned in this post has data centers and offices scattered all over the country, and it is common practice for people to work together for years, and never meet each other face to face. Most, if not all of the collaboration takes place on the phone, NetMeeting, or some other enterprise collaboration tool. In fact, some of the Development is done overseas in India, so meeting in person is not always an option.

      At the beginning of projects, I always make an effort to meet as many of my project team members in person as much as possible; it may be subtle, but I believe that it helps things run more smoothly over time.

      In the case of meeting Sam face to face, both of us knew enough about the environment that we should try to resolve any conflicts between us without escalation, or involving other people. I could have gone to his manager, but honestly, what good does that do? In general, the feelings just get intensified (and not in a good way) and it does not create the kind of synergy/collaboration that we all hope to find on projects.

      I actually rescheduled my trip to AZ to meet with Sam, once he agreed. It was that important to me, that we work things out. And I think he was impressed that I would take the time to meet with him, since other people faced with this situation may not have.

      I guess I was just lucky that he wasn’t located overseas:)

      People skills are the most critical element for project managers – period.

      My thanks to everyone for their feedback! Really appreciate your comments.

  11. User Avatar

    Wonderful story. Thank you very much for sharing. Perhaps we’ve all had a ‘Sam’ in our careers at some time or another, and we learn a lot from the experience. You are so right-on that PMs need to be able to work with everyone, no matter now difficult. Unless, of course, we own the business 😉

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