I was at the dentist office waiting room when a dad and his son walked in. As the dad checked his son in, the receptionist told him his son missed his appointment—it was 30 minutes earlier. She was not sure he could be seen anymore. The dad protested by saying that the reminder voicemail they got from the office was for the time they came and proceeded to play the receptionist the voicemail. Sure enough, he was right—the receptionist herself made the mistake and said the wrong time on the message. Even when faced with the evidence of her own mistake, she tried to cover it up by saying that the boy’s X-rays were for that time, not his dental cleaning. The dad was visibly upset. They lived 45 minutes away. This was not their fault.
They worked it out in the end: the son could be seen for his X-rays, but would have to wait for another hour to be seen by the hygienist. The receptionist never apologized, took responsibility, or admitted her mistake.
As a witness to this exchange, I felt the father’s frustration and pain of taking time off work, driving for 45 minutes to the dental office, and being made to wait for another hour without a word of apology. The dad never lost his cool, but I wondered if this family would ever come back after being treated poorly for a mistake that was not their fault.
I also thought about how the receptionist missed the opportunity to respond to the situation with sincere apology and compassion. By not admitting her mistake, taking responsibility, and apologizing, she broke the dad’s trust and may have cost the dental practice a dedicated client. Why not say sorry? If you want to be seen as the one in charge, one who doesn’t make mistakes, one who is tough and knows what they are doing, you cannot admit your faults. If you are tough, you cannot be vulnerable. You have to hide your vulnerability by not admitting to any mistakes.
If you are familiar with Brené Brown’s work, you know that the opposite is true. Her life’s work is focused on teaching people to see vulnerability as a strength, something to embrace and not something to hide. Vulnerability in leadership means connecting with everyone on your team on the human level—forming a relationship of trust, seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth, admitting your own faults and leading by example.
Had the receptionist been able to apologize, not only would she have built trust, the dad may have been able to do something too: forgive. Forgiveness comes as a result of vulnerability and trust.
Let’s put taking responsibility for our mistakes and actions, apologizing, and making things right as a valuable tool in our leadership toolbox! So next time we are faced with having to take responsibility for something, we won’t hide our vulnerability, we will instead make amends, build trust and lead by example.