Are you sick of apologizing for things you can’t help?
It was a bad morning for Carol (not her real name). The chronic illness (take your pick: colon, migraine headache, muscle fatigue, breathing problems) was horrible. Only able to pay attention to how badly she felt, she made a quick decision to stay home from work that day. After emailing her supervisor that she wouldn’t be at work that day, Carol went back to bed. Later, when she felt better, Carol read her email messages.
Her supervisor wrote back reminding her that she and Mark (another person on the team) were scheduled to present a report to a client that morning. Without Carol’s part of the report, Mark couldn’t make the presentation and had to reschedule with the clients.
Here’s where the story gets painful:
When Carol called Mark (who knew about her illness) to discuss this, he was very angry. He said that he couldn’t work with someone who is unreliable. Carol took this to mean that he didn’t want to work with someone who got sick. She had rarely missed work and if one day could be so bad, she felt very vulnerable.
She berated herself for not going into work that day and “giving in to the illness”. She worried that if this unpredictable illness could mean the loss of this account, what else might happen? She wondered if she should quit. She thought that she couldn’t take the stress of worrying that others would be angry with her.
Wow. How did Carol get from taking a sick day to leaving her job so fast?
In fact, her error was not in missing work that day. Neither is she wrong to work while living with an illness. Carol’s only mistake was in not preparing herself and those around her for the possibility that she might be too sick to be at the meeting.
Carol can recover from this error. But only when she recognizes the real nature of what went wrong. In fact, in this particular case, her presence wasn’t even necessary. Had she prepared for the possibility that she could get sick, her absence would have hardly been noticed.
What should she have done?
She should have made sure that Mark had all of the materials he might need if he had to do it on his own. And she should have discussed the possibility with him in advance.
Carol does not have to apologize for living with an illness that is unpredictable and, at times, debilitating. But she can apologize for her very human error. Nothing more but that’s a lot.
I thought of this reading the post in the blog, A Chronic Dose, “When Things Go Awry: Making Sense of Medical Errors”. Laurie Edwards points out how medical errors are the result of human interaction and, no matter how we try to create systems to eliminate errors, they are inevitable. Saying you are sorry might not regain a lost client (in a bad case business scenario). It will certainly not bring back a life (in the worst case medical scenario). But saying you are sorry for your error gives everyone the opportunity to learn and to move on.
What can you do to prepare for the unexpected? What can you do when it happens?