On Broken Glass, Apologies, and Obamacare

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When I was fourteen, I took over a friend’s paper route for the summer. I don’t quite remember how that came to pass (I doubt that I was jumping for joy at the notion of getting up every morning at 4AM), but here’s something I do remember from that experience.

     One of my ‘customers’ on the route was a bit of a grouch, and of greater importance to me, he made it a point to never answer the door when I went around collecting for my services. So, on the last morning that I had the route, I made one of those unfiltered, split-second decisions that you often later regret. I decided to wake this guy up at 5:00AM on a Sunday morning with a big, fat newspaper delivered at a high rate of speed to the aluminum panel at the bottom of his storm door. So, with my very best Nolan Ryan imitation, I launched Mr. Grumpy’s paper toward the door with everything my right arm could muster. Having failed to consider the impact of adrenalin and the difference in altitude between where I was and where the door was, the paper’s path was straight and true, but about a foot high. As it blasted thru the glass in Mr. Grumpy’s storm door, I got instant gratification from the certainty that I had awakened him, followed immediately by an introduction to the term, ‘collateral damage.’

     When I got home, I told my folks about my little mishap. They insisted that, within the hour I walk back to Mr. Grumpy’s house, clean up the mess, apologize, and tell him that I would make arrangements the next day to replace the broken glass in his door. That lesson has stuck with me ever since, and today it serves as a basis for advice I offer coaching clients and larger management audiences about building and maintaining trust.

     Recently, President Obama and members of his staff have broken some glass in rolling out the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare. Given that this is doubtless the largest government-induced change in my lifetime, I think it’s natural to expect some missteps and unintended consequences along the way. In all likelihood there will be more. Thinking people realize that our healthcare system simply must evolve. We can no longer keep our heads in the sand about the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of the existing 50 year old model.

     Unfortunately, the President didn’t have the benefit of my mom’s advice* on the art of cleaning up one’s messes. As the result of waiting way too long to acknowledge, apologize, and react to mistakes and poor execution, he has invited feelings of mistrust, and howls from the home team, visitors, and the cheap seats alike.

     And, in fairness, if the rest of us had gotten some of my mom’s advice as well, we would know that when someone offers a genuine, albeit late apology to you, you would do well to accept it and move on.

Bill’s Mom’s Advice for Cleaning Up Your Messes

  1. Be quick to own your mistakes and apologize.
  2. Do it (apology) right, and do it once. Don’t go on a guilt tour.
  3. To the very best of your ability, make it right.
  4. Move on.
  5. When someone apologizes to you, assume ‘positive intent’ and accept their apology.
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