When I was younger, police officers who pulled you over didn't expect you to stay in your car. Instead you took the walk of shame back to the police car while everyone else drove smugly by.
So that day I shuffled back, settled into the passenger seat of an unmarked car, and glanced at the radar display mounted low on the console.
It read "94."
I turned to the officer. He was wearing a suit instead of a uniform, and as I waited he used the rearview mirror to adjust his necktie.
"You know," he said finally said, "I may not look it, but I'm a gambling man. When you took off at the stoplight back there, I thought, 'Hey, I bet he didn't notice me.'
"I was right. When you hit 65 miles an hour, I thought about pulling you over, but I thought, 'Nah, I bet he'll go faster.' Then you hit 75. I almost hit my lights but thought, 'Hmm. There aren't any cars around, and he's not really putting anyone in danger. I bet he's not done yet.'
I shifted uneasily in my seat.
"Then you hit 85. I have to admit I was very, very tempted, but then I thought, 'No, hang on; call me crazy, but I really do believe this boy's got a little more in him.'
Now I was squirming.
"And sure enough," he said as he laughed, smacked the steering wheel, and finally turned to face me, "You did!"
You know how, when you do something stupid, that you wish you could get those few seconds back and make a different decision? I mentally replayed pulling up near him at the stoplight. Although at first glance it did look like an unmarked car, there were no lights, no antennas, no snarl of equipment on the dashboard...so I didn't give the car another thought until I looked in my mirror and saw flashing lights in its grill.
I really, really, really wanted those few seconds back.
Eventually he stopped chuckling. His expression turned serious. "Now," he said. "You want to explain why you were in such a hurry?"
I didn't even consider making excuses. Nothing excuses doing 94 in a 55 mph zone.
"My alarm didn't go off," I answered, "and I didn't want to be late for work." I shrugged and shook my head. "Sorry. It was stupid."
He sat quietly for a few moments while I thought about the future. Twenty miles an hour over the speed limit qualified as reckless driving, so I figured 40 miles an hour over was a one-way ticket to the magistrate's office, a lost license, and months of hassling friends for rides to work.
He looked at me and raised his eyebrows. "That's it? That's all you've got?"
"Yes, sir," I said, turning away to look down. "That's it. I was in a hurry and I went too fast."
"Huh," he said. I waited for him to start writing my ticket.
"Next time," he said, "just go ahead and be late, OK? Being late for work isn't the end of the world."
I nodded, still waiting for him to reach for his pen. "Go on," he said, pretending to be frustrated. He pushed the reset button on the radar. "You're going to be late."
I lifted my head and stared. "Look, I know those things are fast," he said, nodding toward my bike. "And I know you race 'em. Just keep it down. You might be good, but you can't trust what other people will do."
I thanked him over and over as I hurried out of the car before he could reconsider. I was starting my bike when he rolled up beside me, window down, and leaned across the seat to make eye contact.
"You can still make it to work on time," he yelled. "Follow me into town. I can at least get you to where I turn off for the courthouse."
So for the second time that day, I was speeding -- only this time while I was following a policeman.
After my immediate relief wore off, I started to feel guilty. I shouldn't have gone that fast. It was unnecessary. It was stupid. And I felt bad the police supervisor (it turns out that's what he was) had to stop me. I don't know why, but I felt he had been disappointed in me.
Stranger yet, I did slow down, at least on the street. I felt I owed him that much.
The same thing can happen at work. When people make mistakes, it's natural to try to ensure they don't make those same mistake again. So we we correct them. We discipline them. We ensure they learn their lesson.
Yet discipline can often shift the focus off of the underlying event and onto the disciplinary action. Come down hard and it's natural for people to dwell on the punishment, and how unfair it seems, instead of focusing on improving whatever they did to deserve the correction or the discipline.
Some employees only respond to discipline. But good employees are their own worst critics.
The employee who shipped the wrong product? He knows he messed up. He already feels bad about it. The employee who gave a customer an inaccurate and incomplete proposal? She knows she messed up. She already feels bad about it.
Neither will ever forget their mistake -- and will try extremely hard to make sure it never happens again.
That is the result you want.
And that's why sometimes the best thing you can do is look the person in the eye, nod, and walk away.
What you really want is for your employees to learn from their mistakes.
So let them.