Just say sorry
After writing about Accountability & the Blame Game yesterday I started to think about an important aspect of being accountable which is the apology. I know that there is mixed research out there with regard to the effect a leaders apology has on the organization and the perception of the leader. Research aside it is my belief that when you are wrong in your personal or public life you should apologize—Immediately. My experience on the personal relationship side is that apologizing even if you aren’t sure if it is your fault is often worth doing. In fact I’ve often felt that taking the initiative to be the person who starts the healing process will drive the other person to see where they may have played a role in the issue. If you have an interest in saving the relationship be the person that starts the healing otherwise it may not happen.
I know this isn’t an easy thing as a person with a healthy ego and plenty of pride it can be very hard to be the person who reaches out first and says “I’m sorry.” I ruined a few relationships that I wish I’d held on to when I was younger because I was simply to stubborn to apologize. Whether it was because it was “mostly” the other person’s fault, or because I simply couldn’t bring myself to say those two simple words I chose my pride over my relationship. In the process I know that I sacrificed things, many of which I’ll never know because I lost all of the potential results that could have come from those relationships.
I’ve heard people say leaders should be very careful about apologies because they can be seen as a form of weakness. I couldn’t disagree more and there is a trend across recent popular business writing and research supporting the idea that apologies are good business. For a look at the role of the apology from the top leader of an organization read “Should Business Leaders Apologize? Why, When And How An Apology Matters” by Linda Stamato. In fact the overall the trend towards apology is on the rise. Barbara Kellerman makes the statement that “The rise in the number of leaders publicly apologizing has been especially remarkable. Apologies are a tactic leaders now frequently use in an attempt to put behind them, at minimal cost, the errors of their ways.” From When Should a Leader Apologize—and When Not? on HBR.
I think the best reason of all to apologize is still the same as it was when you were in kindergarten—because it’s the right thing to do. I think almost everyone has been told at one point or another when they were young to “Say the magic word” and saying “Please” is important too, but I have to say that as I’ve focused on trying to do a better job of saying sorry when I’m in the wrong that “I’m sorry” is pretty magical as well. Don’t let your pride get in the way of progress or personal relationships.
Saying the word “sorry” – and the act of seeking forgiveness – is critical in any context, but it’s tough to do in the workplace as it can look like weakness, as you said.
The key trait behind an apology is humility – the ability to own up to the fact that none of us execute perfectly and that, whether intentional or not, when we fail to perform up to expectations in a way that affects the team, we should acknowledge it.
I love the tie across to humility. Thanks for the thought. I really like the way that ties things together.
I don’t think people should have to apologize for doing something they genuinely think is right just because the general public or someone else has a differing view. On the other hand, taking ownership for your actions is key at any level, in any organization, and in any role. As Andy mentioned below, saying the word “sorry” only goes so far. Taking ownership and showing humility is key.