My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Leadership Lesson

I made an employee cry. Sort of by accident. Sort of on purpose. He had ticked me off. He was out of line. In retrospect, I realize I wanted to let him know not to mess with me.

I was an experienced HR manager. I received a snarky email from an employee. He was responding to a message I had sent out to all organization members. The topic was a hot button for him. He twisted my words, put in it an email and copied his boss and a few more people.

What he didn’t know is that he had now pressed one of my hot buttons. That’s when someone twists my words deliberately to make me look stupid.

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

During this same time period I was training managers on how to talk to their employees. I was training them specifically on how to ask questions before jumping to conclusions.

I distinctly remember thinking I could apply that approach with this employee. But he was so out of line, this was an exception. He needed to pay a price. As you can imagine, I ended up paying a price too.

I Rued The Day

I set up a meeting with him to discuss the topic at hand. I basically told him that it was my prerogative to make the decision I shared in that message. I didn't owe him an explanation.

I didn't leave it there though. I don’t know what else I said to escalate the situation. I'm probably blocking it out. I do know that when I left his face was so red it looked like his head was going to explode.

His boss called me soon after. She asked me what I did to make her employee cry. She said she had never seen him that way before.

My boss called me and asked me what I did. He told me to leave the man a message apologizing and then avoid talking to that employee from now on. The employee thought the HR manager had it out for him. That is not anything a leader wants to hear, especially when it is earned.

I Was Not A Leader That Day

I had called myself a leader, but I was not a leader that day. Upon reflection, it felt like something else had taken over my good sense. On the other hand I knew what I was planning, and I did it anyway. I guess that is the power of a deeply rooted button, when pushed.

This got my attention, especially with his boss’s and my boss’s response. I respected them and they were telling me to back off. How I wish I could take it back. But the damage was done, irreparably. I am so sorry that employee was in the position to be the target of my very bad judgment that day.

A Leadership Lesson Paid Forward

Several years later I was training a group of managers on leadership skills. We were talking about values, about your own vision for yourself as a leader, and the importance of self-awareness.

I found myself telling the story of the day I made that employee cry on purpose. The room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I wondered if I had made a mistake with being so transparent.

I told them the story because I wanted them to understand that a leader can't afford to be self-indulgent, like I was. We also need to keep in mind how employees view our perceived or real authority. It is up to us to be super conscious of not abusing the privilege of a title.

Being Up Front Pays Off

We completed that day’s training session. One participant who had been hanging back came up to me. She said she had been apprehensive and wondered if the training was just a bunch of platitudes. She wondered if the trainers had real world experience. She said that after she heard that story from me, she was ready to take me seriously.

I think that's the day I could begin to truly claim the role of leader, by being willing to confidently admit that mistake, how I learned from it, and to publicly share my experience as a cautionary tale.