Leadership Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry

(Maybe sometimes…)

In most leadership training, apologizing is not encouraged. Often, people think of apologizing as a sign of weakness or, worse, indecisiveness or a lack of confidence or courage. WikiHow  says this about apologizing, “An apology is an expression of remorse or guilt over having said or done something that is acknowledged to be hurtful or damaging, and a request for forgiveness. However, it can be difficult to swallow our pride and say “I’m sorry.” If you have a difficult time making amends for mistakes or repairing the effects of angry words, here’s how to keep your dignity while being humble, and invite forgiveness with grace. ” There are a lot of “feeling words” (remorse, hurt, damage, forgiveness, pride, anger, dignity, humility) in that definition for most leadership training. I would add to this list “guilt” and “remorse.” While it may seem like a side issue compared to most of the compelling, urgent issues that need to be addressed in leadership training workshops, saying, “I’m sorry” at appropriate times (and meaning it), can be a very powerful way of building trust. And, building trust, as we all know, is of the utmost importance in building teams. So how does a leader know when an apology is appropriate and how is the best way to go about it? And how does the leadership training facilitator weave this into the content of the class?

Organizations are systems of relationships. All organizations are formed of groups of people with a function to perform in various relationships with one another; both formal and informal. The organization will perform its function or not to the degree that those relationships work or don’t work. One important job of a leader is to create the conditions under which people can successfully build those relationships. It is important, I believe, to acknowledge that people are people and that they often make mistakes even when their intentions are good. And all of us have occasionally done things that we are not especially proud of. A harsh word spoken in anger! An e-mail sent before you calmed down! A poorly thought out decision! There are many actions that even a well-meaning leader might do that could cause harm to a team member or a colleague. Don’t discount emotional damage. Hurt feelings can cause people to avoid you, make mistakes, reduce commitment to tasks, lead to complaining, etc. And, it can be contagious. One damaged employee can infect others who can pass it on to others and so on. Pretty soon you have an epidemic. Failure to recognize the damage or an unwillingness to acknowledge it can undermine your team’s goals. Effective leadership training should first emphasize learning how to recognize the right time to apologize. Then, it should help participants learn the skills and steps to take to make the apology productive.

saying sorry at work leadership training conflict resolution skills how toAn apology is appropriate when your behavior damages another person in some way. That harm can be either emotional or practical. That does not mean that an apology is in order every time you do something that someone else doesn’t like. While trying to get your job done, trying to meet your own needs, or just getting on with the day-to-day activities of living your life, you may do or say things that hurt others. Apologies are most important when your intentions are suspect. If the relationship matters to you and you want to do the right thing, ask yourself:

• Did I do this on purpose to hurt the other?
• Was this outcome something that I should have and could have reasonably foreseen?
• Was I negligent in some way?
• Was this an abuse of my power?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, an apology may be called for. So, how do you go about making a true apology. The popular way to “apologize” portrayed in today’s media is say something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Or, “I’m sorry it turned out this way.” That kind of statement is, of course, not really an apology at all. According to Beverly Engel in The Power of Apology: Healing Steps to Transform All Your Relationships , there are three components in a true apology: regret, responsibility, and remedy. Each of these is important and should be addressed in your leadership training.

• Regret. Is the apology sincere? That is, do you truly wish that you had not done what you did? When my daughter was very young (about 4 years old), we received a call from her teacher who told us that our daughter “Poked Gregory in the eye.” Ouch! Fortunately, there was no lasting damage to the boy’s eye. After a number of conversations, we discovered that Gregory had very likely provoked the incident (even Gregory’s mother thought that was probably true). We, as parents, wanted to convince our daughter that you don’t solve problems by poking people in the eye. We tried to persuade her to apologize. After several long, frustrating conversations we simply gave up. Kelly was adamant that since she was not sorry, she shouldn’t say she was. I must admit, she had a really good point. Actually, we were kind of proud of her for holding her ground. A forced apology has little real meaning and forfeits most of its healing power. The important point for leadership training is that apology isn’t for every conversation. Some leaders have a tendency to apologize for everything. “I’m sorry I have to ask you to work overtime.” Or, “I’m sorry that I can’t approve that leave request.” But, too much of that kind of apologizing simply makes the act meaningless. On the other hand, leaders often fail to handle situations equitably or fail to use their leadership skills when they make important decisions. These kinds of situations call for apologies: not for trying to solve the problem, or trying to get your needs met but for the way you did it.

• Responsibility. Honestly accepting responsibility for your actions and acknowledging the harm to the other person is an important part of the process. According to Engel  “This means not blaming anyone else and not making excuses for what you did. For an apology to be effective it must be clear that you are accepting total responsibility for your action or inaction.” To retain the respect of your team members, you need to be willing to be accountable for your actions. Remember that you are a leader only if someone else chooses to follow you. So, no matter how much organizational power or authority you have been given, your team members can fire you as leader. And who wants to follow someone who is always blaming someone else for his or her mistakes? Leadership training should also encourage participants to be real people. Human beings make mistakes and admitting them is not a sign of weakness but an indication of courage.

• Remedy. Offer to make up for it. Be ready and willing to take restorative action when possible. When possible, encourage the “wronged” individual to suggest possible solutions. But be willing to follow through and genuinely try to make things right. Talk is cheap.

Effective leadership training will also encourage participants to use their Active Listening and I-Message skills . The person you are apologizing to will likely have some strong feelings about what happened. Good Active Listening will help you demonstrate your empathy and your genuineness. Good I-Messages will help you get your own needs met and reduce the harm done with blameful messages of all kinds. Using your leadership skills to take care of your work relationships will help you succeed as a leader. Learning to apologize when it is appropriate to do so will help you take care of those relationships. And, if you disagree, well, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

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