I left the company years ago for another but I still run into former colleagues. Usually the ensuing conversation involves something along the lines of, “Hey, did you hear about the (latest management decision I think is really stupid) at the plant?”
This question was different.
“You worked there for almost 20 years,” my ex-coworker said. “Is there anything you wish you could go back and do over?"
I thought about it later. I don't really regret strategic errors or poor tactical decisions or career missteps (I made plenty of those.) I certainly regretted those things then, but now, not really.
Instead I most regret the things I didn't say: To employees who reported to me, to some of my peers, and to at least one person I worked for. Those are moments I'd like to have back.
It's too late for me, but it’s not too late for you. Here are five things you should say—today—to people you work with:
“That was great how you...” No one receives enough praise. No one. Pick someone who did something well and tell them.
Feel free to go back in time. Saying, “I was just thinking about how you handled that project last year...” can make just as positive an impact today as it would have then. (Maybe a little more impact, because you still remember what happened a year later.) Surprise praise is a gift that costs the giver nothing but is priceless to the recipient.
“Can you help me...?” One of my biggest regrets is not asking a fellow supervisor for help. I was given the lead on a project he really wanted. To his credit, he swallowed his pride—he was senior to me in tenure and perceived status—and told me he would be happy to help in any way he could.
Even though I could tell he really wanted to participate, I never let him. I decided to show I could handle the project alone. I let my ego be more important than his feelings.
Asking someone for help implicitly recognizes their skills and value. Saying, “Can you help me?” is the same as saying, “You're great at that.”
And there’s a bonus: You get help.
“I'm sorry I didn't...” We’ve all screwed up. There are things we need to apologize for: Words. Actions. Omissions. Failing to step up, or step in, or simply be supportive.
Say you're sorry. And don't follow up your apology with a disclaimer like, “But I was really upset...” or, “I thought you were...” or any statement that in any way places even the tiniest amount of blame back on the other person.
Say you're sorry, say why you're sorry, and take all the blame. No less. No more.
“Can I help you...?” Then flip it around. In some organizations, asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness. Many people naturally hesitate to ask. But everyone needs help.
Don't just say, “Is there anything I can help you with?” Most people will automatically say, “No, I'm all right.” Be specific. Say, “I've got a few minutes... can I help you finish that?”
Offer in a way that feels collaborative, not patronizing or gratuitous.
And then actually help.
“I'm sorry I let you down.” I was assigned a project in a different department. It was a project I definitely didn't want. So, to my discredit, I let it slide. I let other people take up my slack and focused on projects I was more interested in.
To his credit, my manager had stuck his neck out to get me the project so I could get broader exposure but I, well, didn't care. Eventually my manager said, “Everyone knows you're really busy, so they have decided to handle it themselves.”
I felt bad but I never said, “I know you were trying to help me. I'm sorry I let you down. I promise it will never happen again.” That one statement would have chased a very large elephant from the room.
The biggest elephants are emotional elephants. It's up to you to chase them away.