Choice of recommenders for your MBA apps is partially a strategic one (who can say the most insightful things about you? anyone in a position to recommend you who’s also an alum of the school?) yet it’s also an exceedingly practical one. Who meets the standard criteria that the top schools are looking for?
1. Professional recommendation is strongly preferred
2. Recent relationship, not too dated
3. Supervisor or in some managerial capacity over you in the organization
Those are finite questions, meaning that there will be only a small subset of people you know who fit all those parameters.
Maybe there’s only two or three that could qualify.
Maybe there’s only one.
When you think of that one person — your current boss, the woman you’ve worked for for over three years now — do you cringe?
Does the thought of asking her to write a recommendation for you make you shrink inside?
When you think of asking her, does your brain become clouded and a sense of doom steal over you, as you remember The Incident?
Well, we’re here to coach you through it.
By “The Incident” we mean, that one time when you totally lost it and went off on her in a raving fit of madness.
Or maybe (gulp) it happened more than once.
Or maybe it was some drunken indiscretions, out at happy hour with the gang after work and it morphed into an after party and then an after-after party, and then there was some untoward behavior and much shame and embarrassment the next day when you had to face up to your coworkers again. Maybe that was a long time ago, but you still go cold inside when you think of it.
That Thing You Did that you’re mortified and embarrassed about to this day.
Everybody has one, at least something where they really wish they hadn’t been quite so forthcoming with their thoughts on the matter. Or where they just let the stress of that project and the burden of the never-ending demands pile up and they lost their cool. Or whatever.
How do you handle that now, when you’re in a position of asking for a very big favor of someone who you think maybe hasn’t quite forgotten that, or perhaps doesn’t really respect you because of it?
First of all, it definitely depends on the actual circumstances, and perhaps the recency of these events, and definitely on how you handled it in the immediate aftermath. If you screwed something up royally and only were defensive and lame about it, and made everyone uncomfortable with how unwilling you were to take responsibility…. Or if you tend to be always very prickly whenever you get feedback of any sort, such that people need to walk on egg shells around you, but you’re an A+ producer and top performer and everyone appreciates the contributions you make so they put up with your moods…
If this was a one-off thing, in an extreme moment, during a difficult period of your life (maybe your dad just died and your girlfriend split up with you or you got kicked out of your apartment because your roommate wouldn’t put a lid on the partying), and normally you’re pretty cool to be around and don’t make waves and aren’t causing problems by being late on deliverables or forgetting to do stuff or causing firedrills unnecessarily…
All of the circumstances matter. So our advice today will need to be customized to the actual situation that happened, and what the realities are in your workplace, and what type of personality you’re dealing with with your boss. Etc.
However, in many cases and circumstances, if something is still causing you emotional distress and you’re worried that it’s impacting how others view you at work, then one of the most productive and worthwhile actions you can take is to simply apologize.
Doesn’t matter if this Thing happened six months ago, or two years. Doesn’t matter if you apologized for it already. Doesn’t matter if nobody’s mentioned it for ages, or if you’d been hoping and praying that nobody ever would again.
If it comes up in your mind on the regular as a topic of distress, then it’s still bugging YOU. And if it’s surfacing from your unconscious often enough, then that means it’s an unresolved situation in your world. And if it’s unresolved even though you really wish it would go away, then there’s a strong possibility that the reason it’s unresolved is because it’s unresolved in the relationship between you and one other person.
We don’t keep thinking of things that are non-issues in life. When you go to the grocery store and buy your groceries and load the car and drive home and put the groceries in the fridge and nothing happens, you never ever remember that event. It’s just the task of the day and it is not recorded into the memory banks of your organism. When you go to the grocery store and in the parking lot get into an almost-physical altercation with a complete stranger over a totally ridiculous thing like someone swooped into your parking spot as you were trying to park, then that shit stays in your head for days.
If this post made you think of That Thing that happened at work, and it made you groan inside a little, then that’s in the category of unresolved tension. If it keeps coming up, out of the blue, from time to time, then that’s a sign to you that you still have something to deal with. (Or, in certain mental health situations, it could be a symptom of a thought disorder, such as anxiety, in which case you already know that you tend to stress about things way too much, and this Thing that you’re thinking of as you’re reading today’s post is actually one of a wide assortment of Things that you have a habit of worrying about, in which case — not joking — you might want to seek out the help of a qualified counselor or therapist to talk it over with, because it could be signs or symptoms of an issue that you can get relief from with proper treatment.)
So what do you do?
You want to ask your boss for a recommendation for bschool, yet lurking in the back of your brain is this fear that your boss really doesn’t like you, or she won’t want to do this, or she’ll actually tell the adcom about That Thing that happened when you weren’t at your best.
What you do is you deal with it.
If your boss really is the best choice for a recommender, and you believe that you do have a reasonably good relationship with her overall, and you trust her, and you are comfortable telling her about your plans in applying to bschool (which not everyone is, and that’s a legit reason not to get a rec from a boss if it’s true), yet you have this wriggly feeling inside that all is not well….
What you do is you fix it.
Tell her you want her to recommend her, and tell her you’ve been doing some reflection, and tell her you want to apologize.
Tell her you realize that that was horrible behavior on your part. Own your part in the problem that happened, or fess up to the thing you did wrong. Make it explicit, that you know what was bad, or damaging, or what should not have happened.
Do not make excuses. Take responsibility.
Do it clearly, succinctly, and directly. Acknowledge that you’re doing it because of the bschool application process, and how important that is to you, but tell her that you should’ve done it before, and you’re sorry you didn’t, and this MBA thing has caused you to examine your past in a new light. Tell her you hope you’ve grown from this, and you will do all in your power not to make this mistake again, or whatever is true for you in this process of reflection.
Don’t shine her on, but acknowledge the situation, that the optics are problematic that you’re only apologizing because now you want something from her. Say that yes, that’s true, you’re hoping she’ll write a positive recommendation, but ask her to tell you if this would get in the way of that, and that you’ll find someone else to do this for you instead if she’s uncomfortable with it.
Tell her all of this — briefly, in your own words — and see what she says.
It’s likely that she’ll say, “Wow, well thank you, but that was a long time ago and frankly I’d pretty much forgotten it even happened.” She might even say she doesn’t remember it at all.
And if that’s her response, that’s totally fine. Don’t feel like you’ve wasted an apology, or brought up something negative when you didn’t even need to.
This is not about a transaction, where you’re trading an apology for a letter of recommendation.
This is about being able to live with yourself, and making sure your relationships are clean.
There are many parts of the MBA application process that are challenging. This whole thing about examining our past is one of the hardest. It also can be the most fruitful, in leading to the freedom of a better life.