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Rules of Engagement: Leadership Lessons from a Fictional Hero

When fiction writer Louise Penny introduced her protagonist Chief Inspector Armand Gamache 17 years and 16 books ago, she also introduced a framework for team member success that is both simple and brilliant. In the first novel of the Three Pines mystery series, Still Life, Chief Inspector Gamache tells a rather recalcitrant new murder squad trainee that she must learn to say AND MEAN four things:

  • I don’t know
  • I need help
  • I’m sorry
  • I was wrong

I thought about the fictional Chief Inspector’s advice a great deal when I first read it almost two decades ago, and I started to employ it myself. Eventually I found myself discussing the framework with my direct reports and ultimately in town hall meetings with large groups of employees. This article explores how these rules, which I refer to as the rules of engagement, can create a powerful work culture of accountability, teamwork, inclusivity, and credibility. As a bonus, following these rules in your personal life can be equally rewarding.

I don’t know

Have you ever been asked a question to which you don’t know the answer in a large group meeting? If so, you likely have faced that all too human inclination to guess at the answer and avoid the public humiliation of not immediately knowing something that is theoretically part of your subject matter expertise. Rather than to give into your ego, the best answer is the honest one: I don’t know. A mature, self-confident leader will reply along these lines: “I don’t know off the top of my head, so I will send a follow up answer to this group by the end of the day.” Or when faced with a more complex question, “I don’t know, but my team and I will research this matter and provide an answer at our next group meeting.”

Why is it important to admit you don’t know? Because if other managers and employees rely upon incorrect information, you will spend a lot of time untangling work that was completed in reliance upon incorrect information. In short, you could waste company resources, time, and money. Even worse, you could lose credibility with colleagues and leaders. Far better to show you have the confidence to admit when you don’t know an answer and the willingness to follow up appropriately to provide colleagues with timely and correct answers.

I need help

Here’s a scenario to demonstrate the importance of being able to say, “I need help.”

Sally manages a team and assigns a key aspect of a project to Joe, a new team member. Sally gives Joe plenty of time to complete his work. Then 24 hours before Joe’s deadline, Joe knocks on Sally’s door and advises her that he isn’t going to meet his deadline. Joe explains that he had new hire training deadlines that interfered with his ability to complete his project work and that he thought he’d get in trouble if he missed the training deadlines. Joe needs two more weeks.

Putting aside for the moment that Sally likely should have planned regular check ins with her new team member, now she needs to explain to Joe the importance of saying “I need help” as soon as he realizes that he does not have the capacity, knowledge, or resources to complete an assignment. Sally, as a manager, also needs to create an environment where team members feel comfortable admitting that they need help without fear of retribution or retaliation. In fact, this is especially true when working to create an inclusive environment where all team members feel comfortable speaking up on a timely basis. 

I am sorry

Many managers believe it is a sign of weakness to say, “I’m sorry.” More enlightened managers know that it’s important to be able to demonstrate empathy to others. This can come into play when an employee has simply had a bad day and needs to hear that their manager cares. More importantly, confident leaders say “I’m sorry” when they’ve made a mistake that has impacted other team members.  Or for example, when a tight deadline has been put in place that wreaks havoc on work and family schedules. Team members are much more likely to feel genuinely motivated to help when a leader says something like, “I am sorry that we’ve been asked to complete this work by Monday. I will be here at 9 AM on Saturday, and breakfast is on me. I’ll see you then.”

Most importantly, when a good leader realizes they have offended a team member, they recognize the impact of their actions or words, they apologize, and they demonstrate a commitment to learn from their mistakes. In doing so, they create an environment where others feel safe, valued, included, and respected.

I was wrong

Whenever you make a mistake at work, obviously you need to correct it. Often, you also need to tell others of your mistake—either because others have already relied on your work to complete their own or because they may rely on it in the future if they haven’t been told of the mistake. Great leaders admit when they are wrong, modeling strong emotional intelligence for the rest of the organization. By the way, the ability to say I am sorry usually comes in handy in these situations as well.

There’s an obvious corollary to this rule. When I tell team members of these rules of engagement, I also caution against needing to say I was wrong too often. Cultures that encourage employees to admit to mistakes as soon as they are uncovered also need to demonstrate commitment to accountability by encouraging employees to learn from mistakes and not repeat them. 

Bringing it all together

In the latter part of my career, whenever I started working with a new team, I deliberately introduced Inspector Gamache’s lesson. I told team members that I believed all employees needed to be able to say these four short statements, and I publicly committed to using them myself. By demonstrating my sincerity and by responding with appreciation when team members followed suit, I saw team member engagement grow AND employee survey results improve. Why? Regular use of these four statements creates powerful dialogue, and nothing is more critical to team success than good communication

While Inspector Gamache did not specifically mention this in his conversation with the stubborn trainee, I believe he would wholeheartedly embrace the importance of this fifth statement: Thank you. I learned the hard way that I didn't say these words often enough. Smart managers always find the time to thank employees for work well done. Really smart managers know to tailor their “thank yous” to meet the needs of the team member. Some people like public praise; others find it embarrassing to be in the spotlight. Better understanding each employee’s needs and applying that knowledge on an individual basis in your recognition efforts can help create an environment where employees feel valued and respected.

In fact, using all these rules of engagement will help foster better, open communication and a truly inclusive environment, which leads to better employee engagement and a team-oriented environment.  Or to borrow again from Inspector Gamache, learning to use and mean these statements leads to wisdom.