Soft skills matter

January 29th, 2013

A recent article in the Bloomberg Business Week emphasises – again – that it’s soft skills which determine your long term career success.

Roxanne Hori, the associate dean of corporate partnerships at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management advises students planning their MBA classes to take as many soft skills subjects as they do hard skills such as finance, strategy and operations.

Without doubt, hard skills are fundamental to getting onto the right career ladder. But having strong team skills and knowing how to build and manage relationships are just as important.

They become even more so in more senior positions when everyone even being considered as a candidate has the hard or technical skills under their belts. The competencies that make the difference between one candidate and another are the soft ones.

Hori’s advice to young people starting off in their careers is to pay as much attention to skills in leading and managing teams, negotiating and managing power in organizations, and in building productive relationships.

It’s good advice.

Join the discussion on the Bloomberg Businessweek Business School Forum

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I’ve been watching school children this morning on their way to the first day of term, thinking of all the things they’ll learn and all the questions they’ll ask as they grow up.

We ask them questions.

‘What did you do today?’

‘What did you learn today?’

’What do you want to be when you grow up?’

Have you asked yourself the same questions recently?

What will you do today that will make a difference and contribute something valuable to your employer or your clients?

Will you learn anything new today, or are you coasting along on the basis of previously learned skills and experience – which may or may not still be relevant.

Are you on the way to achieving your potential in your career or are you stuck, bored and frustrated?

First day back at school for kids: it’s a good time to think about whether you need to get back to school.

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If you want to be known as a person of integrity you must keep your promises and meet your commitments.

This means making promises and agreeing to commitments which are realistic for you and with which you are comfortable: and saying no to requests you cannot handle.  When you make realistic commitments people will learn that you are reliable and can be trusted to do what you say you will do. Their respect for you will grow and your relationships with them will improve.

Reliability and integrity are the basis for good personalrelationships, as well as those with friends and at work.  They are also an essential part of providing good customer service.

In the conversation that follows Sophie is given a commitment by a panel beater who is repairing some damage to her car. Unfortunately it is a commitment that he cannot meet.

It was early on Monday morning and Sophie was dropping her car off for repair after she had been involved in a minor collision.

‘Can I have it back by Friday?’ she asked. ‘I need it for the weekend.’

‘No problem. It should be ready for you on Thursday afternoon.’ The panel beater replied. ‘We’ll call you during the week to confirm.’

By late Wednesday, Sophie had heard nothing and decided to follow up.  ‘Is my car still on schedule for tomorrow?’ she asked.

‘Yes I think so’ was the reply.  ‘We’ve got the parts.  We just have to fit them and then it goes to the paint shop and then…’

‘Hold on’ Sophie interrupted. ‘Today’s Wednesday.  Are you sure you’ll have it done for tomorrow?’

‘Don’t worry.  I’m giving it priority. It will be in the paint shop today and then we’ll polish it tomorrow.  We’ll call and let you know.’

Sophie hung up with some misgivings. The next morning she called again, ‘How’s my car doing?’

‘Well, it’s coming out of the paint shop this morning, then it just has to go for polishing and…’

Sophie’s exasperation was showing. ‘But you said it would be ready today! It doesn’t sound like that will happen.’

‘No, well, you see, we have to allow drying time, and it’s taken a bit longer…let’s plan for tomorrow.’

On Friday morning Sophie called again. ‘I’m sorry’ the now familiar voice answered, ‘I don’t think we’re going to make it for today. We’ve been very busy this week… I’m sure we can do it for Monday…’

Straight talk tips on this conversation

This interchange is likely to sound painfully familiar. It takes place any time someone commits to doing something, without properly thinking through the implications of what they have agreed.

Assurances are given first, followed by excuses as the agreed deadline approaches. Finally, the supplier has to admit he cannot keep his commitment.

Sophie is stressed by the unreliability of the supplier; and the supplier is stressed by the constant pressure from his frustrated client.

All of this could have been avoided with a more realistic estimate from the beginning, and the words, ‘No, I can’t do it for Friday’.

Conversations in which you say no can be short, direct and quite simple, in contrast to those in which you give bland assurances or make excuses and apologies. In the next conversation Sophie avoids making a commitment she feels would be unrealistic.

‘Can I have it by Friday?’ Sophie’s manager asked on Monday morning as he finished explaining the report he needed her to prepare.

‘Let me think’ she said. ‘It’s going to take some internet research; and I’ll have to phone around for some of the data. That will take a couple of days. Then there’s the report itself to write as well as the PowerPoint presentation. And this week I’ve also got to get the monthly report out, and it can’t be late.It’s going to be tight. Can we plan for Monday afternoon? I’ll let you know by Friday morning how I’m doing.’

Straight talk tips on this conversation

One of the most important steps in responding to a request is to take time to think through exactly what is required.  Showing that you are doing so provides reassurance that whatever decision you come to is not being made lightly.  Sophie’s three words say it all: ‘Let me think’.

She also considers the impact this request will have on other deadlines.

When she offers her manager a carefully considered, alternative deadline, he can see for himself the basis for her decision.  Apologies are not necessary.

Offering a progress report well before the deadline is reassuring. If all goes smoothly Sophie has an opportunity to bring her deadline forward.

No one likes to say no. In the short term, it’s often easier to go along with what others want than it is to stand up for yourself. It’s also easier to give excuses than it is to speak plainly about what you feel and need. Saying no can be difficult, even scary, but being prepared, and planning what you want to say makes it easier.

Whatever the circumstances, the longer you agree to be imposed upon, the more difficult it becomes for you ever to stand up for yourself. Being truthful about what you feel and need allows you to maintain your integrity.

But it also carries risks. You may lose people from your life, those who value you mainly because of what you do for their lives, and those who are too self-centred to notice or care about the effect of their behaviour on you.

In the long run, however, speaking up for yourself and mastering the fine art of saying no makes for better health and better relationships.

This conversation is adapted from material in Straight Talk: how to manage conversations that scare you, published by Struik, 2011. For more information go to

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Friends are the people who are there for you when you need them. Sometimes it can be difficult to define the boundary between being there for someone and being used unfairly. If you don’t speak up as soon as you feel someone is taking advantage of you, the relationship can develop into a pattern which causes you to become angry and resentful, but which you may find very hard to change.

When you decide to protect your personal boundaries, you may feel that you are choosing between being liked and being respected. Everyone loves a pushover who is there to lend a hand, be a stopgap and general gofer. However, if people only like you because of what you do for them, you may want to question your relationship with them.

When you learn to be comfortable saying no, you can make decisions about where you want your boundaries to be. You might find that you lose some of the people who had become accustomed to depending on you to help them meet their own needs and objectives, but you will have healthier relationships with the friends who remain.

In the conversation that follows Teresa stands up to her friend Judy, whom she feels has been taking advantage of her availability to look after the children. The conversation illustrates the point that when you think ahead to a conversation, you are more prepared to handle it when the moment arrives.

‘Hi, Teresa’, said Judy sounding a little breathless. ‘Can I drop off the kids with you this afternoon? I’m sorry to call you at the last minute. I’ve got a lot of shopping to do and the kids hate being dragged around the shops. I hope you don’t mind.’

Instinctively, Teresa agreed to help, but as she put the phone down, she felt some resentment. Although they often helped each other out, this was the third time this week that Judy had asked her to look after the children. As Teresa thought about it, she realised that she was looking after Judy’s children two or three days every week. She realised it was her own fault for letting the situation develop, but she resolved that next time Judy called she would speak up. She was missing her time alone with her own children.

Two days later, Judy called early in the morning. ‘Could you take the kids after school today? I need to go and see my aunt; she’s recently moved to an old-age home.’

‘I’m not sure about today,’ Teresa replied. ‘I was looking forward to spending it with the boys. How long will you be?’

‘Well, the retirement home is down town, so I guess I’ll be gone most of the afternoon.’

‘Yes, that is quite a distance away,’ Teresa said. ‘Judy, I’ve already made plans with the boys today. I don’t want to change them, so I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to help you out. I hope you can make another plan.’

‘Oh!’ Judy sounded surprised. Clearly she had been expecting Teresa to be available, as she usually was. ‘Well, okay then’ she said. ‘Not to worry. I’ll sort something out.’

Straight Talk tips on this conversation

Saying no is often easier than you think it’s going to be. This is a low-key conversation for Teresa, because she’d recognised the need for it and so was prepared for Judy’s call.

Notice that Teresa makes sure she understands exactly what Judy wants from her by asking how long she will be away. Often we commit to doing something for someone before we fully understanding what we are getting into.

Teresa is honest about her reason for not being able to helpJudy and explains her plans without going into extensive apologies or excuses. It’s sometimes tempting to create excuses for saying no, but it’s better to be honest. When you tell the truth there is no danger that you will give inconsistent stories or be caught out in a lie.

Judy’s surprise indicates that in future she may think twice before imposing on Teresa.

Having said no to Judy on this occasion, Teresa will find it easier to do so in future, and Judy will be less likely to take her for granted.

This conversation is adapted from material in Straight Talk: how to manage conversations that scare you, published by Struik, 2011. For more information visit

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It is difficult to resist requests from people with whom you have close relationships, because of your fear that they will take offence. But agreeing to something that you resent damages your authenticity in the relationship and over time does more harm than being truthful from the beginning.

In the situation below Teresa is concerned that she will not be comfortable spending a long weekend with her father-in-law and his new wife whom she has not yet met. She would prefer to offer an excuse for refusing the invitation but her husband Richard, in the conversation with his father, is honest about their reason for declining the invitation and offers an alternative plan.

Teresa opened the conversation with Richard over dinner. ‘Your father phoned this afternoon to invite us to spend the long weekend with them. I said we’d talk about it and let him know.’

‘What’s the problem?’ Richard looked puzzled. ‘We’ve nothing planned for that weekend, and I think it’s time we got to know Nikki properly. They must be thinking it strange that we haven’t invited them over yet.’

‘I know. We should have. And that’s the problem.’ Teresa sighed. ‘I still haven’t met her. I’ve no idea what’s she’s like. You say she’s very nice, but I’m worried I’ll feel really awkward with her. I’m definitely not ready to spend a whole weekend with her. I’d much rather we made an excuse. We could say we’ve got plans for that weekend and maybe invite them over for dinner one evening instead.’

Richard shook his head. ‘We’ve both been worried that Dad was lonely. He’ll never replace Mum, but we don’t want to see him on his own for the rest of his life.

Teresa sighed. ‘I suppose you’re right. But I’d still rather meet her first, before spending a whole weekend with her. Can’t we make an excuse?’

‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,’ Richard said. ‘You know that excuses lead to lies and then more lies. I’d rather call Dad and tell him the truth: that you’d like to meet Nikki first, and spend some time together before we go away with them. Maybe we can plan a trip for later in the year. I’ll invite them to dinner one night next week. What do you think?’

‘I guess that’s a good idea. I don’t want Dad to think that we disapprove of Nikki, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings,’ Teresa said. ‘I suppose you’re right. If we make some excuse and he finds out, he’ll be really hurt.’

The next morning Richard phoned his father. He wasn’t expecting a difficult conversation. He had a good relationship with his father, and they had often talked about how his father was coping with life on his own.

They chatted for a few minutes before Richard brought up the invitation. ‘Teresa told me you phoned to invite us to join you and Nikki for the long weekend.’

‘Yes,’ his father said. ‘But I’m not sure that she was pleased about the invitation. She sounded a bit taken aback. Is anything wrong?’

‘There’s nothing wrong, Dad,’ Richard replied. ‘We’re both happy for you that you found someone. We know you must have been lonely on your own. And I know it’s important that Nikki becomes part of the family. It’s just that Teresa and Nikki haven’t met yet, and we feel it’s a bit soon for us to spend four days together. There might be, you know, some awkwardness. We’d like to get to know Nikki a bit better before we go on holiday with the two of you. We realise we should have invited you over ages ago. I just don’t know where the time goes! So why don’t we start by having dinner together soon, and then take it from there?’

‘Yes, I suppose we could do that,’ his father replied. ‘It’s just that Nikki and I thought it would be nice to get away, somewhere we could relax, get to know each other. Look, I realise it was all a bit sudden, meeting her and everything. I suppose Teresa thinks I’m crazy, settling down with someone so soon.’

‘Well, it did happen quickly, but from what I can see, the two of you seem very happy together,’ Richard reassured his father. ‘Teresa needs to see that for herself, and to have time to get to know Nikki. Why don’t we get together one evening this weekend? How would Saturday be for the two of you?’

Straight Talk tips on this conversation:

Notice how Richard opens the conversation by reassuring his father that he and Teresa are happy for him and want his wife to become part of the family. This sets a positive tone for the rest of the conversation;

He gives his reason for declining his father’s invitation simply and honestly, with the words ‘we feel it’s a bit soon for us to spend four days together’.

He then offers an alternative invitation that would work for everyone and ends the conversation on a positive note.

This conversation is adapted from material in Straight Talk: how to manage conversations that scare you, published by Struik, 2011. For more information click here

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The longer you allow others to assume that you are always available to fit in with their plans and demands, the more difficult it becomes to change your behaviour. You find it more difficult to speak up; the other person finds it more difficult to accept that you are no longer going along with their requests and assumptions.

Faced with a difficult conversation that might end with you being thought of as unhelpful and uncooperative, it often seems easier to stay quiet. In the short term it probably is. But in the longer term your frustration and resentment will eat away at you until one day it explodes, doing more harm than any well planned and well intentioned conversation in which you say‘No’.

In the situation below, Sophie has allowed her manager to assume that she is regularly available for work on Saturdays. In this conversation she resists a request to meet on a Saturday morning because of the commitment she has made to her boyfriend and family. Notice how she gives her reasons for not being available over the weekend calmly and without apology.

When Sophie relocated to the head office of her employer, she planned to get home at least once every month. She missed her boyfriend and time with her family but as she worked to get on top of her new job she had fallen into the habit of spending most of each weekend catching up on mail and planning for the coming week.

Several times previously she and Julie had met on Saturday mornings. This week she had worked late every day to be sure that she could fly home on Friday evening for the weekend.On Thursday afternoon, she was in the middle of an email to her boyfriend, sending him her flight details, when the phone rang.

It was Julie. ‘Listen, Sophie, I need the figures for the executive meeting on Monday morning. We’ll be discussing…’

Sophie listened carefully, making notes as Julie talked. When she finished with ‘So I thought that we could get together early on Saturday, to go through everything’, Sophie checked her notes before replying.

‘Julie, can I check that I’ve got this right? I want to be sure exactly what you need for Monday. I know this meeting is important.’

When Julie confirmed that Sophie had understood her correctly, Sophie took a breath and said, ‘Julie, I’ve booked a flight to go home tomorrow evening. It’s the first weekend I’ll be home in six weeks. I’ve been missing my family and I’m looking forward to seeing them all again.I’ll get all of this to you tomorrow, before the end of the afternoon. My flight is only at six o’clock. But I won’t be able to meet with you on Saturday. I hope you understand. I’ll be available on my cell over the weekend, and we can also talk on Monday morning if you need to.’

There was a pause before Julie spoke. ‘Well, I suppose so,’ she said slowly. ‘I was hoping you’d be around on Saturday, so we could discuss the details. I didn’t expect you’d be going home.’

Sophie stayed silent, resisting the temptation to offer to postpone her flight.

After another pause, Julie continued, ‘I suppose it will do if you get it all to me tomorrow afternoon.’

After the call, Sophie took a deep breath and settled down for a long afternoon’s work. ‘Phew! That was close,’ she thought to herself. ‘Julie seemed happy enough, although I think she expected me to just fold and change my plans. I’m pleased I stood my ground.’

Straight Talk tips on this conversation

- Notice how Sophie checks that she understands exactly what her manager wants and acknowledges what is most urgent.

- She explains her commitment to her family and the plans she has made, concisely and without apology so Julie can understand the basis for her decision to go home that weekend.

- Silence can be very powerful in difficult conversations. Sophie resists pressure from Julie to change her plans by simply being quiet, leaving Julie to accept her decision.

- Sophie softens her refusal to come to a Saturday morning meeting by offering to be available on the phone over the weekend. Often saying no to a plan that would only suit one person can become a negotiation to find an outcome that suits both parties.

This conversation is adapted from material in Straight Talk: how to manage conversations that scare you, published by Struik, 2011. Click here for more information.

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Are you one of the people who has lent money to a friend, a relative or a business partner, expecting that at some point it would be returned, maybe even with interest. Perhaps you negotiated payback terms and received reassurances that they would be met, but the deadlines went by. You might have felt too embarrassed to say anything or maybe you followed up with inquiries, some tentative, some more aggressive. But you still haven’t seen your money.

In the conversation below, Michael’s son Matt refuses to lend money to a friend who has not returned previous loans. It models how you can say no even when you are under some pressure from someone to say yes to their request. Although the conversation takes place between two children, Matt’s approach could apply to any situation in which you have lent something on the understanding that it would be returned. At the end of the conversation there is a set of tips highlighting the steps in the conversation.

‘Dad, can I ask you something?’

‘Sure, what’s up?’ Across the table, Matt was busy scribbling figures in a notebook.

‘My friend James always wants to borrow money from me, and I’m sick of it. How can I tell him I won’t lend him anymore, at least not until he’s paid me back?’

Michael put down his newspaper and pulled his chair closer to Matt’s. ‘Let’s have a look.’ He picked up Matt’s notebook. ‘You’ve got two problems here, haven’t you? You want him to pay back what he has borrowed already, and you have to tell him you don’t want to lend him anymore. Just how important is your friendship with James?’

‘He’s my best friend!’

‘Well,’ Michael said, ‘if you refuse to lend James any more money, there is the possibility that he won’t want to be your friend anymore. But if all he wants from you is someone to borrow money from, then he’s not the kind of friend you want, anyway. Do you see what I’m getting at?’

Matt nodded.The next morning, he approached his friend on the playground.

‘James,’ he said, ‘I lend you money every week, and now you owe me $55. I thought you’d pay it back when you got your birthday money, but you didn’t. Now I need it to pay for my new bike. I can’t lend you any more until you pay me back.’

James looked surprised. ‘I thought you had lots of money,’ he said. ‘Your dad is always giving you money!’

‘No, he’s not. I just get my pocket money, and I can’t afford to lend you any more. When are you going to pay me back? The other day you said you bought a new computer game. It’s not fair that you’re buying games when you owe me money.’

‘Okay, I suppose so.’ James looked down at his feet. ‘I get my pocket money on Friday. Can I give you some then?

‘How much?’ asked Matt.

‘I can give you $15.’

‘Okay, but can I have $15 the next week as well?’

‘It was easy!’ Matt told his father later that day.

‘It often is.’ Michael smiled. ‘You don’t have to make a big deal out of saying no. You don’t have to explain anything more than you did. And you don’t have to apologise either. Just give your reasons why you need the money back, and say what you would like the other person to do.

Straight Talk tips on this conversation

- In this example, the children speak more bluntly than adults might do, but the conversation still follows the CARE model for how to say no.

- Michael first asks Matt to think about the implications for the friendship if he refuses to lend his friend more money.

- Matt was very direct, but he sticks to the facts, without exaggerating or making accusations that would have given a negative tone to the conversation.

- He sticks to his guns even when James accuses him of having lots of money.

- He negotiates a payback plan. Tackling a problem in small steps is a good way to get things moving toward a solution.

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How to say no

June 27th, 2012

Why do you say yes when you really want to say no?

You say yes when you mean no, because you fear that others will criticise you for being selfish, uncaring or unhelpful. You say yes to hold onto the illusion that you can be there for everyone, the dependable fall-back in every crisis, the perfect employee, perfect friend and perfect partner. There are also times when you say yes to help others follow their dreams, because you are too scared to follow your own.

When you sacrifice your self-respect for the approval of others you find yourself doing things you don’t enjoy with people you don’t like. You put yourself out for people who don’t appreciate your efforts. And you spend your time on their wants and demands when you could be pursuing your own needs.

You say…

‘It’s fine, I’m happy to help out’

‘It’s no problem, I can do it’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.’

You’re lying! It’s not fine and it is a problem.

Playing nice to gain approval comes with a downside. You have no time or energy left to follow your own dreams or desires and you feel bitter and resentful about the lack of appreciation from those you have helped. As your true feelings start to show, you become negative, critical and even spiteful.  Your self-esteem drops further and your stress level rises. Depression and physical health issues are sure to follow.

Being able to say no is one of the most important skills you need to keep yourself in a good space. It helps you get a life. When you say no to others, you find you have time and energy to pursue the things that are most important to you and that enable you to become a truthful and authentic person who can relate to others with integrity.

It’s the way you say no that matters. Use the acronym CAREwhen you want to plan a conversation in which you will say no.

C is for clear

Start by finding out exactly what the other person wants from you. Ask for the details of what, when, who, why and how much. Make sure you are clear about what you are getting into.

A is for acknowledge

Acknowledge the request. This ensures that the person knows that you have heard and understood what he or she wants, and that you are able to consider the request fairly. It means that if you decide to refuse the request, he or she can be reassured that you have not done so thoughtlessly.

Taking time to acknowledge what someone wants also buys you thinking time in which to consider whether or not you will agree to their request. You might say, ‘So let me check: you want me to …’ or, ‘Okay, you’re asking if I can … Is that right?’

R is for recognise

Before you make your decision, stop and recognise your own needs, resources and skills, constraints and priorities. Do you really have time for this? Do you have the skill to do it? Would you enjoy doing it or is it something you dislike?

Take your time to think through your personal capabilities and wishes. If someone wants to push you into doing something that suits him or her but which he or she is aware may not suit you, be prepared to be pressurised to agree immediately. Don’t be a pushover. Don’t be afraid to take time to make a decision that is good for you. If you don’t, you will be the one with the regrets.

Some useful phrases

‘I’m not sure I’m comfortable about this. Can I get back to you later?’

‘I don’t know whether I can help you. Let me check my calendar.’

‘This may not work for me. Give me some time to think it through.’

E is for effect

Think through the effect of your decision on the things that are important to you. If you say no, will this have a negative effect on an important relationship or your career? If you say yes, will you have to forego things that are more important to you personally? Will you become stressed and exhausted or will the request fit easily into your schedule? Decisions have both short- and long-term effects. You should think of both before you make up your mind.

Finally, when you decide to say no, first explain what you have considered in arriving at your decision. Be brief. Be honest. Don’t apologise and don’t explain unnecessarily. Simply allow the other person to see that you have made your decision thoughtfully and carefully.They might wish that you had said yes and been a pushover, but if they care for you at all, they will respect your decision and the way that you made it.

Sometimes, you may be able to offer a compromise, by helping at some other time, or in some other way. If you are comfortable doing so, that’s well and good. If not, simply say that you cannot help.

Think of all the times when saying no could have prevented your getting into situations that were way beyond your capabilities, responsibilities or best interests. Next time, try saying no and notice the positive effect it has on your stress level.

It’s okay to say no!

This conversation is adapted from material in Straight Talk: how to manage conversations that scare you, published by Struik, 2011. For more information go to

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I’m really sorry

June 8th, 2012

We often react to our mistakes by blaming and accusing others, rather than by acknowledging what we’ve said or done and apologising. A sincere apology can prevent the emotional wake you leave behind, doing harm to others.

We often react to our mistakes by blaming and accusing others, rather than by acknowledging what we’ve said or done and apologising. Witness our behaviour on the roads and in parking lots!

Blaming others can be easier than seeing and admitting the error of our ways. Sometimes we are afraid to apologise in case the apology is not accepted. Often we expect other people to ‘know’ we’re sorry without our actually saying so.

When you cause hurt or upset, you create resentment. If you don’t apologise, the resentment may slowly disappear and the hurt will be forgotten. But when you accept responsibility for what you have said or done, and show that you regret the hurt you have caused, you can put things in perspective, clear the air properly, and move on.


- Don’t start by making excuses. You’re responsible for your actions and for their consequences and you need to show that you understand that.

- Don’t offer cheap apologies. Can you remember being told as a child, “Tell Auntie Mary that you’re sorry”? But you weren’t sorry and you apologised only because you had to. Some of us still apologise because we feel we should, not because we’re really sorry, and the apologies we offer are meaningless and cheap.

- Don’t invalidate the other person’s feelings with comments like ‘Come on; it wasn’t really that bad’.

- Don’t assume that simply saying ‘I’m sorry’ is enough. It isn’t.


- Do start by saying that you are truly sorry.

- Do show that you understand how you havecaused the upset. ‘I’m sorry I shouted at you. I shouldn’t have let my temper run away with me like that.’ When you admit a mistake and show that you understand where you went wrong, your apology has sincerity and you stand a much better chance of being forgiven.

- Do be patient. Hurt and resentment may not disappear the moment you offer your apology. Allow the other person to talk about why they feel hurt and listen without being defensive.

- Do be open to talking about what happened if the other person is willing to do so.

Making a sincere apology can be a simple process. It’s one we should use more often, rather than continuing blithely on, without regard for the damage we may be creating. As a boat moving through water leaves a wake behind it that can harm other boats, so each of leaves an emotional wake behind. A sincere apology can prevent your emotional wake doing harm.

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There have been two topics in South Africa’s news recently that are directly related to the quality of conversations in the workplace.

- reluctance of employers to take in young people because of the labour relations implications in firing those whose performance is not satisfactory

- sick leave abuse that managers seem unable to control.

Neither of these problems would exist if effective conversations about poor performance and bad behaviour were taking place. The principle underlying both situations is that any problem with either poor performance or bad behaviour must be identified and addressed as soon as possible.

In practice most managers prefer to avoid these conversations because they can be sensitive, difficult and hold the possibility of conflict. This however provides tacit assurance that the behaviours can continue…and they do. Performance continues to drop and sick leave continues to be taken. The longer nothing is said, the worse the problems become and the more entrenched the behaviour patterns become.

Three steps can remove the possibility that either poor performance or bad behaviour, such as abuse of sick leave, ever become on-going problems.

Confirm expectations. Every induction to a new position must start with clarification of what is expected of an employee. Standards of performance required can be defined in many ways: targets and measures, KPAs and KPIs, and in detailed performance contracts.

Standards of acceptable behaviour can be more difficult to define but the same principles apply.In the case of sick leave, company benefits should be spelled out and the purpose of the benefit explained clearly.

Speak up sooner. From the start, a manager must speak up as soon as possible with positive feedback to set the tone for a working relationship. If a problem with performance is identified, feedback should be given and the cause of the problem addressed. Obstacles to performance such as lack of tools, resources or authority can be removed. Insufficient knowledge or skill can be improved with training. Motivation problems are more difficult and careful conversations are needed so the manager can get to the root of the problem.

These early conversations do two things. They start to solve the problems before they become ingrained habits and they send a confirming signal about the expectations that are held of the employee.

Apply consequences. The most critical step in managing performance is to hold people accountable. Part of the confirming expectations process is to make people aware of the consequences for non-performance or poor behaviour and to make it clear that these consequences will be applied. The organisation’s labour relations policies will assure that they are applied fairly and consistently.

Conversations which hold people to account need a balance of safety and toughness. Threats, accusations and blame play no part in them. Employees should feel safe to speak up with their view of the situation. Managers must be fair in the way they apply rules and standards.

When expectations are agreed at the start of a working relationship and people are held to account for poor performance and bad behaviour from the moment problems appear,they  never develop into the kind of intractable problems we face at present.

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