Why are the simplest words sometimes the hardest to say? Featured

10:15am EDT June 1, 2012
Why are the simplest words sometimes the hardest to say?

There’s a classic line from the 1970 movie “Love Story” that has become a part of our popular culture. In the drama, the dying heroine played by Ali MacGraw says to her husband, played by actor Ryan O’Neal, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” as he apologizes for his anger. It is certainly a memorable and tear-jerking line, but is saying, “You’re sorry” all that bad if it can soothe a wound caused by someone speaking or acting out before thinking?

Disagreements and anger are a reality in the workplace and in life in general. Various people react in different ways when under pressure. Some lose their cool completely and say things they instantly regret, while others launch into tormenting the perceived offender with the silent treatment. No matter the technique used to punish, all of these methods quickly become tiresome and, more importantly, adversely affect the workplace.

Too frequently in the work environment, many people just can’t suck it up and utter the two simple words, “I’m sorry,” even when they know they’re dead wrong. It’s not a macho thing either, as women don’t behave much differently when they feel put upon. What’s a boss to do when this stubbornness becomes problematic?

In a word: intervene. When not controlled, these unreasonable, obstinate antics can become time-consuming and disruptive. It could all start with an impetuous negative e-mail or a less-than-mature voice mail left in the heat of battle that cascades into a futile distraction, as otherwise effective and seemingly sensible employees act out as if they’re in a 20- or 30-year time warp, behaving as if they’re back in the third grade rather than adults in the workplace.

The most expeditious method that works with either the protagonist or antagonist in an office drama is to call a spade a spade, so to speak, and get the feuding parties together and cut to the chase, making each person agree to bury the hatchet but preferably not in each other’s skull. If employees’ anger management issues are left to fester, they can easily result in other people in the same work environment taking sides, and in short order, you will find yourself in the midst of a Civil War. The only thing guaranteed when this occurs is that there will be casualties. It is incumbent on the ruling manager to make sure that the company doesn’t wind up as the victim, incurring a loss of productivity and causing everyone around the two factions to feel as if they’re walking on pins and needles.

While many times it would be easier for the boss to ask one of the warring participants to approach the other to work out their differences, this tactic just takes too much time and the outcome can be iffy. It really doesn’t matter who is right or wrong but that the nonsense is stopped dead in its tracks. The best way to accomplish this is to make it more than abundantly clear that anger in the workplace is a nonstarter and could be a career-inhibitor.

Allowing employees to exhibit a lack of civility will cause a domino effect that will lead to no good. Civility does not just apply to peers. Instead, it’s applicable to all who must work together, including superiors, subordinates and even fellow board members. Don’t confuse civility with agreeing or disagreeing with someone. It also doesn’t mean one has to believe that someone is effective in his or her role. Instead, what must be required is that those within an organization, no matter what level, simply take the higher road and respect not necessarily the person but the role and make the assumption that everyone has a part in working toward shared goals, until it is proven otherwise.

Once everybody knows the rules of engagement, many times the negative engagement suddenly ends and it’s back to business as usual. When that doesn’t happen, it’s time for offenders to be forced to go to their respective corners so as not to do each other or the company any more harm.

To promote coexistence when no one wants to take the first step and say, “I’m sorry,” it’s up to the adult in the room — and that would be you, the boss — to step into the fray with your whistle to call a permanent timeout to these types of disruptive shenanigans.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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