We are frequently taught that leaders, especially aspiring leaders, should hide weaknesses and mistakes. I personally disagree with this wholeheartedly. It is not only good to admit you are wrong when you are; but also it can also be a powerful tool for leaders—actually increasing legitimacy and, when practiced regularly, can help to build a culture that actually increases solidarity, innovation, openness to change and many other positive features of organizational life.
I’ve been thinking about the power of apology lately. I’ve been noticing that the people for whom I have the most respect don’t hesitate to say “I was wrong,” or “I’m sorry I…” On the other hand, the people I have the hardest time respecting seem constitutionally unable to take responsibility for their own mistakes. Even when they try, it comes out sounding like “I may have been partly at fault, but…” or “It may seem that I was wrong, but…” They just can’t do it.
Apologizing freely requires a good deal of courage. It’s not comfortable for any of us to admit an error, or to acknowledge that something we’ve done has caused others harm or inconvenience. So when someone truly apologizes, we know he or she is putting honesty and honor above personal comfort or self-protection. It’s inspiring, and it feels brave.
Followers look to see whether a leader is courageous before they’ll fully accept that person’s leadership. If they see courage (and taking full responsibility for actions and admitting and apologizing for mistakes are key indicators of courage), it feels safe to ‘sign up.’
Because so many of us have a hard time apologizing, I thought it might be helpful to have an ‘apology primer.’ Here you go:
- I’m sorry: this is the core of a genuine apology. “I’m sorry.” or “I apologize.” It’s the stake in the ground to communicate that you truly regret your behavior and wish you had acted differently. No apology is complete without this.
- Stay in the first person: Many, perhaps most, apologies run off the rails at this point, when the apologizer shifts into the second person, e.g., “I’m sorry….you didn’t understand me.” Or “I’m sorry….you feel that way.” Suddenly, you’re no longer apologizing for your actions; you’re telling the other person that you regret their actions or feelings. A true apology sounds like, “I’m sorry I….” or “I’m sorry we…”
- Don’t equivocate: Once you said what you regret about your actions or words, don’t water it down with excuses. That can blow the whole thing. You’ve all heard this one before…“I’m sorry we haven’t gotten back to you about your enquiry, but you have to understand we’ve got hundreds of clients.” You definitely wouldn’t feel apologized to – in fact, I’d feel like I was just another unimportant inconvenience. Better to say “I’m sorry we haven’t gotten back to you about your query.” And just leave it there.
- Say how you’ll fix it. This seals the deal. If you genuinely regret your words or actions, you’ll to commit to changing. This needs to be simple, feasible and specific. “I’m sorry we haven’t gotten back to you about your enquiry. We’ll have an answer to you by this Friday.”
- Do it. I know some people who don’t have a hard time apologizing, but seem to have a hard time following through on their apologies. If you apologize and say you’re going to behave differently, and then don’t – it’s actually worse than not having apologized in the first place. When you don’t follow through, people question not only your courage, but also your trustworthiness.
So there you have it. Next time you’re clearly in the wrong, take deep breath, put aside your self-justification, your excuses, your blame, your defensiveness, and simply apologize. Being courageous in this way is generally scary in anticipation. But it feels great once you’ve done it….to you, and to those you lead.
The above is with acknowledgement to Doug Guthrie, Sudhir Venkatesh and Erika Andersen, at Forbes.com
Remember – Be Positive Always