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. We’re seeing this play out daily, especially in the political arena.

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 builds trust.

We’re frequently taught that leaders, especially aspiring leaders, should hide weaknesses and mistakes. This view is flawed. It’s not only good to admit you’re wrong when you are, it can also be a powerful tool for leaders to build a culture that actually increases solidarity, innovation, openness to change and many other positive features of organizational life.

Followers look to see whether a leader is courageous before they’ll fully accept that person’s leadership.  If they see a leader taking full responsibility for actions by admitting and apologizing they’ll 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 because they’re helpless, but because they know the person in charge really has their back. Also, courage begets courage, as followers are more likely to make their own tough decisions and to take responsibility for them when you model that behavior.  In short, they’re more likely to have your back, as well.

Because so many of us have a hard time apologizing, I thought it might be helpful to share the following;

  • 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 when you shift 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 in in first person and 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.  You’re not apologizing. You’re telling the other person they were being inconsiderate for holding you accountable!  Just let the apology stand on its own.
  • Say how you’ll fix it.  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 I put you in that position and it won’t happen again.”
  • 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 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.

Next time you’re clearly in the wrong, take a 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.

Trust me, it feels great once you’ve done it….to you, and to those you lead.

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