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Decent People Offer Decent Apologies

Show me a leader who can’t offer a decent apology, and I’ll show you a leader who ends up with no followers. And as my mother likes to say, “To be a leader, you must attract followers. Otherwise, you’re just taking a walk.”

The True Test of Any Apology

Does it restore trust and credibility?

Apologies that are insincere, incomplete, poorly delivered, and not backed up with a change in behavior—or better yet, a change of heart—can damage trust and credibility more than no apology at all. Spare me the alibi, "I was just being honest."

Integrity includes honesty (of course), but goes beyond it. Take a look at this chart I created, Lacking Integrity vs. Showing Integrity.

In the workplace, where achieving organizational goals hinges on trust and teamwork, effective apologies are a necessity, not a luxury. The higher your position, the more important this issue becomes. Why? Because you’re standing in the spotlight, where your imperfections are much more visible, and where much more is expected of you.

More to the point, if you want to keep your best people, you need to give them an example worth following.

5 Keys to A Decent Apology

1. When you mess up, fess up. The ideal time to do this is before you have to. Let your respect for the other person come through in ways that can be felt. How? By going to the person directly and owning up to your actions, without undue self-justification. Let your sincerity come through in your words, your voice, your body language, and facial cues.

2. Acknowledge your impact, not just your intent. Few of us go around intentionally hurting others. But that doesn’t necessarily diminish our impact. If I step on your toe, even though I didn’t mean to, it still hurts. If I repeatedly make the same offhand remark, it might erode your trust in me, even though I meant no harm. Be ready to acknowledge how your words and actions affect those around you—and change when necessary to restore the relationship. It's less about "correctness" and more about credibility.

3. Let the other person know how things will be different. But what about when things won't be different? For example, when someone wants more of your energy than you're feeling able or obligated to give. Or the employee who wants you to lower your standards for performance. Even then, honor your boundaries while letting the other person save face. It doesn't take a big conversation. Sometimes it doesn't take a conversation at all.

4. Stay focused on your goal: namely, to work through the issue at hand in a way that restores trust and respect. This is not the time to turn the tables or bring up extraneous issues.

5. Never think that saying, “I’m sorry” makes you weak. On the contrary, apologizing effectively takes tremendous strength, not to mention social grace. If you can rise to the occasion, your apologies will stand the best possible chance of being well received.

By owning up to your human frailty, and making it your job to overcome it, you will deepen trust across the organization, one relationship at a time (pardon me for sounding like Stephen Covey). All kidding aside, the greatest human relationship to be strengthened will be your relationship with yourself.

But it pays to be realistic: Not every culture or relationship welcomes such openness. This is where discernment comes in. Will you lead by example to change the culture—or move to a culture where openness and integrity are already thriving? Which one would you rather look back on a year from now?

If you want to keep your best people, give them an example worth following.

Gina DeLapa

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Gina DeLapa is America's Ultimate Reminders® Coach, a sought-after speaker, and the proud creator of the Ultimate Reminders® book series. Her wise and witty reminders ("Beware the organization whose response to a burning building is to form a committee") will make you laugh, stir your soul, and inspire your best. If you're not already getting her free Monday-Morning Pep Talk, be sure to sign up now at UltimateReminders.com/mondaymorningpeptalk.