If you believe that a leader is supposed to always know what to do and always be right, what do you do when something goes wrong? Denying mistakes, avoiding talking about them, or blaming them on others is a surefire way to lose credibility.
The good news is that when you make an effective apology, you can actually increase trust and credibility.
You might avoid apologizing because you think it has to be a big deal, but in fact, ignoring the situation is what turns it into a big deal. You don’t have to go down on your knees to give an effective apology. On the other hand, a simple “I’m sorry” and changing the subject doesn’t work. It makes people feel like you blew them off.
You can deliver an effective apology quite simply if it contains these three ingredients. However, before you apologize, make sure you really regret your actions. No matter how good your words are, your apology will not come across as sincere if you’re really not sorry. You might need to do some self-reflection before you decide to apologize.
Three Ingredients of an Effective Apology
1. Express remorse.
Start with the words “I’m sorry.” You might say “I regret,” but it is formal and distancing. “I’m sorry” are heartfelt words that recognize that another person was hurt or affected and that you care.
2. Take responsibility.
Describe what you did without excuses. Use “I statements.” There may be important reasons that contributed to your actions that you may want to share later, but don’t do it while you are apologizing as it diminishes the power of what you are saying. Focus on recognizing the impact of your actions on the other person.
There might be times when as a leader, you need to apologize for your team. Acknowledging that you are ultimately responsible for what occurs under your watch makes your apology more effective.
3. Make amends.
If there’s something you know you can do to fix the situation, tell them what you are going to do, and then do it. If you’re not sure what to do, ask directly “What can I do?” – not passively “If there’s something I can do, please let me know.”
A pattern of behavior is more difficult to apologize for, and you need to explain how you will stop the pattern.
A pattern of apologies is worthless, so make sure the actions you commit to are actions you can and will take. Part of making amends is ensuring that it won’t happen again.
When and How You Apologize is as Important as What You Say
Most apologies when made as soon as possible can be quite simple. The sooner you apologize, the less likely it is to turn into a big problem.
For example, when Jeremy was late for a team meeting the 3rd time, he felt tension in the room when he entered. He said, “I’m really sorry I was late again for our meeting. I realize it’s not the first time and my being late makes it difficult for us to work as a team. Our meeting is important, and I’m going to adjust my schedule so I have extra time before our meeting in case something comes up or runs over, so I won’t be late again.”
However, the bigger the mistake and the number of people involved will affect how you approach the apology – you might need to spend time preparing your apology, your apology might need to be public, and you might need to repeat your apology. But no matter what, your apology should always include these three ingredients.
Apologies that Fail
Here are some so-called “apologies” I’ve heard over the years. I call them “non-apologies” because they are not recognizing their role or taking responsibility for their actions.
I’m sorry you’re angry.
I’m sorry that happened.
I’m sorry you misunderstood.
I’m sorry you’re offended.
My old favorite: I’m sorry I let you push my buttons.
My new favorite: I would apologize if you want me to.
If you want to learn more about to make an effective apology, my friend Ken Blanchard has written a great book on how to apologize: The One Minute Apology. And another excellent book is Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust by my friend John Kador.
Some times, as a leader, there is need to make sure that the right environment for people to apologize exists. This is particularly critical when dealing with different cultures or social levels, where apologizing is not always seen as a first/natural reaction. Humility must be shown by example, which must not be confused with weakness.
You’re right, it is difficult to apologize in an environment where mistakes are punished. This kind of environment is detrimental, not only to morale, but to the business itself as senior leaders do not know what is going on in the rest of the company and make poor business decisions. Appreciate your points about taking into account cultural differences and social levels. “Humility must not be confused with weakness.”
There is a corrolary that have a positive effect when you are sincerely not responsible…it is an expression of empathy. Saying you are sorry someone had a particular experience can have a positive effect on the other.
Yes, it’s a different use of the words “I’m sorry,” – to convey sympathy, not an apology. As always, appreciate your thoughts, Stewart.
That’s why I recommend “I apologize” over “I’m sorry.” It avoids the confusions with expressing sympathy, a good thing to do, but not when a real acceptance of responsibility is required.
I also require the apologizer to do the heavy lifting when it comes to making amends or restitution. I want the offender to figure out what restitution is appropriate instead of asking the victim, who may not know or may ask for something the offender is not prepared to give. So that creates a secondary mess. Also, victims are looking to the restitution to gauge if the offender really “gets” it. Better for the offender to look at the harm and make the most generous restitution. Nine times out of ten, the victim will accept.
Good tips that show why your book is so great. Thanks for weighing in here, John!
This is one I need to learn and pass on. I can see where I might goof at times. Apologies are also the sign of someone who doesn’t let their ego get in the way. Alas, we see too many folks on the national scene who would have no idea that they SHOULD apologize much less know how to do it.
I think this goes back to Arturo’s point that leadership sets the standard. I can think of two reasons a leader might not think they should apologize – 1) they see it as a sign of weakness to admit mistakes or 2) they truly don’t regret their actions.
Expression of humility is critical
Indeed. Humility and humiliation are two very different things. Unfortunately some people confuse them.
Great advice. I have won more respect by admitting mistakes and apologizing for being wrong than I have for anything I’ve done right.
Great testament to the power of an effective apology. Thanks Rob!
You also mention timing, which is nearly as important as the apology itself. I believe people are willing to forgive but that willingness erodes with every day the apology is avoided. And, if you deny taking responsibility, your window of forgiveness slams shut. Again, thanks for your article.
Thanks for emphasizing this important point, Rob.
Should you ever say I’m sorry if you’re not really sorry? Asking for a friend LOL
Definitely not. If you want to repair the relationship, see if they will agree to have a conversation where you each seek simply to understand the other’s view, without attempting to convince them to see yours.