Leadership Means Having To Say You’re Sorry

Last Updated: April 17, 2020

Value Connection and Mindful Self-Awareness

This article originally appeared in Forbes on July 24, 2019. Please click here to view original article.

Apologies are hard. And oftentimes, quite frankly, the ones we get aren’t that great. There are blaming apologies, excuse-laden apologies and clueless apologies. There are few all-in, “I get what a jerk I was” apologies. I believe that the lack of apologies in the corporate world reflects the mistaken idea that to apologize is to somehow be weak. What’s missing is the embracing of an apology as a sign of strength, confidence and emotional intelligence — all attributes of leaders who know the value of connection and mindful self-awareness.
Apologizing well is rare. However, we can learn to do it, and I believe we should in order to create work environments that feel safer, empowering and open to risk-taking. In my experience, apologies from the heart can enhance trust and deepen connections, significantly improving our collaboration, engagement, performance and relationships. As a result, everyone involved awakens to the possibilities of doing their best work.

I recently had dinner with two executives — successful leaders at the top of their games. One of them mentioned that he wished the other had given more timely feedback so he could’ve course-corrected sooner and avoided some fallout that felt unnecessary. The lack of timely input and feedback created complications that could’ve been avoided. The situation was defined without blame, and because of the way it was presented, the other executive who had missed an opportunity to be more forthcoming was able to pony up, admit his misstep and take responsibility for letting someone down. Honestly, both of these executives work hard on their own self-awareness. Both continually invest considerable time and energy becoming more aware of who they are, how they come across and how they’re going to change what needs to be changed. They’re committed to creating the structure that supports personal growth and change. For each of them, change is an actionable commitment, not a nice-to-have.

Over dinner, the executive who’d made a misstep gave the other a true apology. And here’s what it sounded like: “I’m sorry that by not talking with you sooner, I missed an opportunity to help you sooner. I know this put you in a bad spot. Because I didn’t give you my feedback, you had to bear some negative fallout. I feel bad about that because that’s honestly not what I want for you. I suggest we meet on a more regular basis so this doesn’t happen again.”

Make amends. Words are nothing without behaviors to back them up.

On that night in a restaurant, I witnessed two men listening deeply, acknowledging a disconnect, exploring what went wrong and committing to changes that mattered. One was honest enough to say, “That didn’t work for me.” And the other was self-aware, humble and courageous enough to say, “I’m sorry, and this is what I’m going to do to change.”

To create a more engaged, trusting and healthy environment both at work and in your personal life, follow these apology guidelines:

1. Reflect. Hit the pause button, go within, be honest with yourself and think about how much your behavior or words hurt someone, and as a result, hurt you.

2. Engage. Be vulnerable — embrace the kind of strong vulnerability that gets people’s attention by being self-disclosing and repairing the wrong.

3. Say “I’m sorry,” and be specific. Examples: “I’m sorry for hurting you when I spread untruths about you.” “I’m sorry for letting you down when I didn’t meet the deadline.” “I’m sorry for betraying you when I said one thing and did another.” “I’m sorry for losing my temper, for blaming you, etc.”

4. Acknowledge. Let the other person know you acknowledge the impact on them, that you take it seriously and that you understand their feelings.

5. Make amends. Words are nothing without behaviors to back them up. Verbal apologies are just an appetizer; behavioral apologies are the entrée. Define what you’re going to do differently. Nothing changes if nothing changes. Put a structure in place to support your behavioral change. Are you going to get a coach? Seek support in other ways? Meditate? Learn to pause before speaking? Gain buy-in? Do better? Stop lying? Be responsible? The big question is, “What are you going to do?”

6. Be patient, and practice acceptance. Restoring trust takes time. In order for trust to be regained, you must behave differently, consistently.

Here are things to avoid for effective apologizing:

1. Buts: There are no “buts” in an apology. You did it. So suck it up, and own it.

2. Blaming: Don’t dance the “but you” two-step. This is a take on the “but” apology with the additional poison of blame. It sounds like this: “I’m sorry, but you …” It then goes into a validation of hurtful behavior by blaming the other person.

3. Shaming: Don’t sidestep accountability by inferring that there’s something wrong with the other person by saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

4. Gaslighting: Don’t apologize for things that aren’t your fault. Don’t carry someone else’s load. Some people are wired to try to convince whoever they can that someone else (namely, you) caused their unacceptable behavior. In other words, they would never have behaved badly if you weren’t inept, unworthy and guilty of just breathing so loudly. Move away from that gaslighting as quickly as you can. It’s abusive and damaging.

5. Guilt: Don’t get guilted into believing that healthy boundary-setting is something you should apologize for. The only people who get upset by emotionally healthy, spiritually fit and respectful boundaries are those who benefit from you having none. Keep the bar high, and pay attention to where you end and someone else begins. Let them go on to thrive or make messes elsewhere. Just make sure the train wreck knows not to stop at your station.

When people don’t apologize, the wrongdoing can hang in the air, stifling creativity, connections and possibilities. Apologies can clear the air, lighten our souls and bring people together. Apologies can strengthen teams and enhance results. By apologizing with courage, you’re also healing yourself and deepening your level of consciousness, mindfulness and self-awareness. This is leadership.

Celebrate The Connected Leader’s 1-year-anniversary & download our gift: A Study Guide for Small Group Discussion
Download Now