Friday, June 1, 2012

Why educators should be experts at apologizing

Earlier this week I finished reading Better by Mistake:  The unexpected benefits of being wrong, by Alina Tugend.  The book explores our fear of making and owning up to mistakes as well as the difference that a bit more honesty and humility can make for individuals and organizations.  It's well-written, engaging, and insightful--probably the best thing I've read on this topic since Carol Dweck's book, Mindset.  In the closing chapter of the book, Tugend discusses the relationship between mistakes and apologies, specifically the role that apology plays in learning from and being changed (in productive ways) by our mistakes. That topic seems very appropriate as a conclusion for Tugend's book, because her overall message seems to be that the very best learners (be it individuals, families, organizations, etc.) recognize they make mistakes, acknowledge them when they occur, and leverage them to facilitate learning.

There is an implication in this line of thinking for those of us who call ourselves "educators," which is that we should be apologizing a lot more than we do.  Apologizing should be a common practice on our campuses, not just because it is the nice or civil thing to do, but also because it is an integral aspect to the learning we experience both individually and collectively.  Like Tugend points out in her book, our problem is that we, typically, perceive apologies as either (a) an admission of weakness or incompetence or (b) a "confession" that will get us in trouble at some point in the future.

Think of the last big mistake that was made on your campus, particularly one that effected the work of a large number of people and/or left a sizable portion of the campus frustrated.  What was the response?  I'd give you three to one odds in Vegas that it included some kind of vague, impersonal statement (probably sent via email) that included some version of the sentiment "mistakes were made."  No real responsibility for the mistake is taken by the sender of the email (who generally has no name, but is speaking on behalf of a faceless entity like "the university" or "the administration"), no explanation for what led to the mistake is provided, and very little is said about how the mistake is being addressed or what steps will be taken in the future to avoid a similar occurrence, just a "steps are being taken" statement that doesn't leave anyone feeling any better.

This happened on my campus over the last week.  A team of engineers in the Office of Information Technology performed some kind of systems upgrade or maintenance overnight on May 23 and in the midst of those upgrades a number of critical campus servers were impacted in unexpected and disastrous ways.  While I was only impacted in minor ways (I couldn't access a network drive my department uses), our student employees along with more than half of the full-time employees on campus lost all of their saved/sent emails (which I would never have thought would be that big an issue, but is actually tremendously problematic, for all sorts of reasons), our Campus Accommodations department couldn't bill or accept housing payments, and I even heard yesterday that one of our academic colleges lost nearly 150,000 data files associated with ongoing research projects (they were told by OIT representatives that the data is irretrievable--at which point I would have begun throwing shoes at heads).

While I have no doubt that these problems were unforeseen and that OIT is working tremendously hard to fix the problems, the way the mistake has been handled and managed publicly has been poor.  Although updates on "fixes" have been provided on a daily basis since Tuesday morning, no real remorse or regret has been expressed, no explanation for what led to the problems has been provided, and nothing has been said about how OIT will adapt its practices in the future to avoid similar failings.

I'm trying to stay optimistic and hold out hope that this information is coming, after all, it has only been a little over a week; however, my experience has taught me that large organizations (like my university) are unwilling to make mistakes public and open, such that they can be learned from.  Rather, swift decisions are made, people lose their jobs, and we attempt to forget the mistake as quickly as possible so that we can go back to thinking that all is well.  The irony in all of this is that, for a setting where learning, improvement, and growth are so valued among students, we rarely take an approach to institutional or administrative mistakes that yields those outcomes for ourselves and our work.

One more story.  I've seen this same phenomenon at work in a more personal way over the last few months as a close colleague of mine (who has been a tremendous mentor to me, both personally and professionally) has been, from my perspective, treated very poorly by administration and, essentially, forced into retirement.  The situation has been mishandled on a number of levels from her being notified of the decision with the words "the university is not interested in renewing your contract," to miscommunications regarding when the action will be official, to an awkward dance where she is still working in her position while her replacement is invited to committee meetings she attends and included in intra-departmental communications (which she learns of after-the-fact).  Not surprisingly, she feels hurt, betrayed, and unappreciated--she is even considering legal action because she previously signed a contract indicating she would be in her position until Aug. 31, 2012 but her tenure in her current administrative role is set to expire on June 31st, which creates problems in terms of compensation.  I can't help but wonder how different things would be if someone would take the opportunity to talk with her face-to-face, acknowledge mistakes they made (which they were), express regret for the way it has all made her feel, and talk with her about how similar transitions could be handled in the future.  Of course, it wouldn't change the superficial features of the situation--she would still be moving on and still be sad about that; however, my guess is that both my colleague and those administrators involved would feel better about the whole situation and learn something.

Warren Buffet is a good example of how leaders can and should apologize when they make mistakes.  Commenting to his shareholders in February 2009 he said

During 2008 I did some dumb things in investments.  I made at least one major mistake of commission and several lesser ones that also hurt.  Furthermore, I made some errors of omission, sucking my thumb when new facts came in that should have caused me to reexamine my thinking and promptly take action.


Buffet went on to provide detail as to what mistakes he was referring to and taking full responsibility for the errors.  Maybe someone like Buffet can get away with that, while the rest of us don't have the luxury of calling ourselves dumb.  However, there seems to be something endearing about individuals and organizations who can say "I was wrong."  More importantly, that kind of candor and humility can't help but lead to learning for just about everyone involved.

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