I have been a manager for about ten years in three different companies, all in the same industry. I have learned a lot and over the years have become more patient and diplomatic and a better communicator. I have a reputation for being a tough but fair manager and I keep getting promoted.
All my hard-won experience didn’t keep me from making a really terrible mistake, though. I was in the ladies’ room talking to a peer who was complaining that one of her employees was still out sick. I vented about one of my people who had really been slacking.
Unbeknownst to us, one of my direct reports was in one of the stalls during our conversation. I wouldn’t have known, except someone stopped me outside the bathroom and I saw her walk out. She saw me see her, and we both did the wide eyed “oh crud” look. I really should know better than to do something so stupid. I am mortified. Nothing has happened yet, as far as I know. The woman who overheard us is a very good employee with whom I have had good rapport. What to do?
Wow. Busted. The old “someone lurking in the bathroom stall” scenario. How painful and embarrassing. The good news is that you will never, ever do that again—I know this from personal experience. The kind of amazing thing is how conscious you are that you made a terrible mistake. A lot of people aren’t aware of the power of their words.
You have a couple of options: (1) Pretend it never happened; or (2) Fall on your sword.
If you go with option 1, you may never know if your employee spilled the beans. Or you may find out the hard way that she did. Either way, it will be hanging over your head. This would stress me out unbelievably, but denial can be a very powerful tool and many avail themselves of it. I wouldn’t judge you.
I do, however, encourage you to consider option 2. Go to the unwitting spy and beg her for forgiveness—and her silence. Explain that you were (carelessly) venting and trying to get your emotions under control so that you could give useful feedback. You will then, of course, be obligated to actually give that feedback to the person you were venting about. But you were going to do that anyway, before you got derailed by this drama, right? In this way, you can clean up your mess and move on.
When I was in coach training there was a great deal of focus on integrity, which included a ban on gossip. Gossip was starkly defined as talking about anyone who wasn’t present in the conversation. One of my friends in the program and I challenged ourselves to take it super seriously and not talk about anyone who wasn’t present for thirty days. It was astonishingly difficult, but it really helped us both to raise the bar for our own professional behavior. This experience will do the same for you.
About the author
Madeleine Homan-Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.
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