It takes courage to accept responsibility for our actions and sincerely apologize for mistakes we’ve made. Effective apologies build respect and mend relationships yet many leaders fail to capitalize on the opportunity to apologize and address the impact of their behavior.
Nine times out of ten, it’s our ego that gets in the way. Our natural instinct is to protect our reputation. We quickly find reasons to justify our actions or blame others for the choices we made. Typically, this is because we are embarrassed about our behavior or worried about our reputation. The excuses we make for our behavior set a poor example of leading above the line and impact the credibility we have as leaders.
Apologizing sincerely is an art rather than a science. Sincere apologies start with accepting full responsibility for the behavior absent of any justification or blaming. This requires careful preparation from a leadership perspective. Pay attention to the story you have built around the situation. You’re ready to apologize when your story includes more statements that start with “I” than those that explain how the other person triggered your behavior.
Secondly, sincere and effective apologies include consideration of how your actions impacted others. Acknowledging the potential impact of your behavior let’s others know that you understand their perspective and provides reassurance the behavior is not likely to be repeated. Be prepared to check out your assumptions and listen to the other person’s perspective. For an apology to be effective, it needs to work well for the other person. Having an open dialogue about the situation allows both parties to understand each other’s perspective and determine how best to move forward.
Right The Wrong
Too often we think we can simply say, “I’m sorry,” and everything will be okay. Sincere apologies include a clear and concise statement of what you are apologizing for and an expressed desire to right the wrong. However, a leader who apologizes and then continues to repeat the below the line behavior, quickly loses credibility. Committing to change the behavior and following through on those commitments demonstrates sincerity and sets a positive example for others.
The art of apologizing involves knowing when apologies are required and when they’re not. Some people misuse the words "I'm sorry", apologizing for every action or circumstance regardless of whether it is within their scope of control or responsibility. Whether it's an annoying verbal habit or there is sincere regret for the circumstances others find themselves in, overusing those 2 words serves to undermine bone fide apologies.
Occasionally, leaders apologize at inappropriate times. If, for example, a mandate comes down that requires you to deliver a message that you know will have a big impact on your people, do NOT apologize to your team when delivering the message. A big part of leadership is being a team player and apologizing will only sabotage the leadership team’s mandate. Instead, deliver the message and give your people the opportunity to vent their concerns by spending some time “below the line”. Then, support them in moving “above the line” by asking them to identify what they can do to rise above the circumstances and get the results they need.
In both personal and professional relationships, it’s important to identify when an apology is required. Your can minimize the negative impact of your behavior by apologizing as quickly as possible. Consider both what you want and what you don’t want for the relationship. Your answers to these questions will help you determine what you need to do to repair the relationship and build your credibility.
When was the last time you had the courage to apologize for something you said or did? How was your apology received and what impact did it have on the relationship?
About Gail Daniels
Gail is accomplished at supporting organizations by providing the right set of planning tools and best practice processes to develop, map, document and follow through to execution of the Strategic Direction, Priorities and Actions. She is passionate about supporting and developing leaders to confidently lead people to inspired performance and results. Gail holds a MA Counselling Psychology and a Graduate Certificate in Executive Coaching from Royal Roads University. Gail is an avid learner who actively explores the relevance of neuroscience and emotional intelligence in leadership.