Erika Andersen, Contributor Forbes 6/5/12
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.
I just today read a great article here on Forbes about this very topic called Creative Leadership: Humility and Being Wrong. The authors, Doug Guthrie and Sudhir Venkatesh, make a really clear and well-reasoned case for the positive power of admitting and apologizing for one’s mistakes. At one point in the article, they note that:
“We are frequently taught that leaders, especially aspiring leaders, should hide weaknesses and mistakes. This view is flawed. 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 couldn’t agree more. 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 two of the five key indicators of courage), it feels safe to ‘sign up.’ People need courageous leaders in order to feel there’s someone to make the tough calls and to take responsibility for them – they need to know that the buck truly does stop with the leader. With a courageous leader, people feel protected – not that they’re helpless, but they know the person in charge really has their back.
And courage begets courage: your followers are more likely to make their own tough decisions and to take responsibility for them when you model that behavior. You have their backs – so they’re much more likely to have yours.
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. The former manager of my apartment building once said to me, “I’m sorry we haven’t gotten back to you about your security deposit, but you have to understand we’ve got hundreds of tenants.” I definitely didn’t feel apologized to – in fact, I felt he was telling me I was being inconsiderate to hold him accountable! Just let the apology stand on its own. “I’m sorry we haven’t gotten back to you about your security deposit.”
- 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 security deposit. 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.