Always Apologize!

Posted on by in Attitude, Character, Communication, Leadership, Managing Talent, Relationships

I don’t know if you’ve read any of my posts on my new blog called Letters for My Daughters (where I’m writing a series of life lessons to pass on to them as they make their journey from home to life on their own), but I wrote one the other day on the title above and thought I ought to address the same idea (not the same content :-) with you.

Why? Because it’s a mistake I see a lot of leaders make (i.e. they don’t apologize–or apologize enough–or apologize soon enough) and they all pay a price for that. It doesn’t matter if you’re the President of the United States or the CEO of a global company (BP anyone?) or the Senior Pastor of a large church or the Managing Partner of a large law firm or the Executive Director of a Non-Profit/Association or the Owner of a five person professional services firm. Most leaders don’t get this–and it’s a mistake.

In the post to my daughters I mention that Leroy Jethro Gibbs (the main character on NCIS if you don’t watch the show) is wrong. His opinion is that apologizing is a sign of weakness and you should never do it. I respectfully disagree. Apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. And great leaders get this.

In Marshall Goldsmith’s wonderful book on leadership, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There (which is a must read), he makes the following statement,

“I regard apologizing as the most magical, healing, restorative gesture human beings can make. It is the centerpiece of my work with executives who want to get better.”

Now, lest you try to brush past this statement quickly, you ought to know that the CEOs Marshall coaches are Fortune 500 CEOs. On the list of the Top 50 Thinkers in Business, he’s number 14. In other words, when Marshall Goldsmith says that the centerpiece in his work with executives who want to get better is to help them learn how to apologize, that’s worth paying attention to.

For years, I’ve taught leaders this same idea–that they should apologize freely and frequently. Why? Because relationships matter. If you’re confident as a leader, then you have the strength to apologize and don’t need to worry about self-preservation or ego. And the amazing thing is that when you do apologize, relationships get stronger and the problem is usually eliminated right then and there.

However, when leaders don’t apologize everything gets worse. Relationships get strained and often sever (and, frequently, for life). Conflicts increase. Trust is broken. Sides are taken. Commitment decreases. New problems arise. Productivity decreases. Etc. In other words, nothing positive happens when leaders choose to not apologize. I’ve literally watched organizations shrivel all because a leader or group of leaders at the top weren’t willing to apologize for what they had done. Amazing!

But apologizing isn’t only the right thing to do because of relationships, it’s also good business practice. For example, in a study at the University of Michigan’s Health System, when they opened the doors for doctors to apologize for a medical error guess what happened? Lawsuits didn’t go up–they went down–and in half! In addition, awards went down as well.

“Apologies for medical errors, along with upfront compensation, (reduces) anger of patients and families, which leads to a reduction in medical malpractice lawsuits and associated defense litigation expenses,” says Doug Wojieszak, spokesman for The Sorry Works! Coalition.

Furthermore, on a practical level, I’ve watched this for years. It’s always been my practice to apologize as quickly as possible. Now, frequently, the issue isn’t over something you’ve actually done wrong, it’s their perception of what you did wrong. In those cases, you can apologize for what it has communicated to them or how it’s affected them. “I’m sorry that when I said … it communicated … to you. That was not my intent at all. And I am truly sorry that it’s negatively affected our relationship.” Apology made. Apology accepted. Conflict ended.

So as you look at your work place and relationships, are there some relationships you need to restore with a long overdue apology? Or is there a decision that you’ve made that has had a negative impact that you haven’t owned up to? Just apologize. And from this point forward, make it your policy to apologize freely, frequently and fast. You’ll be amazed at the impact. Plus, you’ll have just made, “the most magical, healing and restorative gesture a human being can make!” Who can argue with that?

To your accelerated success!

P.S. Yes, there are a few instances where you haven’t done anything wrong and you shouldn’t apologize, but, in general, your default position should be to take responsibility and restore relationships whenever possible.

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One Response to “Always Apologize!”

  1. Mike Mayhew 14 August 2010 at 11:42 am #

    Thank you for sharing this article!

    I remember a job I had several years ago and my supervisor, John, a truly wonderful man, came into my office and asked me to go to another office with him. Not knowing what this was about, I followed him to the office of two of my counterparts and John proceeded to publically apologize for a comment he had made in front of these two other employees. His comment had been in front of them and to lift me up and he felt it necessary to apologize for potentially embarrassing me in front of them as well. I honestly had not paid attention to his comment so the apology made me a little uncomfortable. Years have passed and we no longer work together however, now that I am running my own company, I think of him often and remember what an ethical and moral person he was. To him the team was important but the individuals well being was the highest priority.


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