We all know the type: The colleague or boss who is always right, who never takes ownership for mistakes, and who rarely, if ever, apologises. Saying "I'm sorry", that person deems, is a huge sign of weakness and reflects badly on business leaders.
Then there's the person who apologises for everything. For example, a colleague who is tardy to most meetings and uses the word "sorry" so flippantly that nobody believes he is remorseful for his lateness.
All of this prompts the question: How does one offer a genuine apology, and why does it even matter, particularly for managers in business?
"If leaders are going to drive any kind of change in their organisations, they need to create an environment of trust, and you do that by forming authentic human connections with other people," said Blaire Palmer, a leadership coach at That People Thing in Bath, UK, and a former BBC radio producer and journalist. "And you can only do that if you reveal who you are underneath the mask and the gloss." In other words, she stated, be vulnerable and show people you are human, that you muddle up now and then, and that you take full responsibility for your mistakes.
Unfortunately, noted John Kador, a Pennsylvania-based business writer and author of the book Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust, most leaders know when they've done something wrong but don't apologise. This is specifically true for men, who "have been taught to be strong and assertive and competitive, and to avoid vulnerability", he said. Other leaders don't apologise for fear of liability.
But the consequences for failing to take ownership for one's blunders can be huge, he noted: Without apologies and making things right, productivity can plummet, turnover can increase, and workplace relationships can suffer, hurting the people involved and the organisation. By apologising, by being honest and exposed, one is not exhibiting weakness; instead, saying a genuine "I'm sorry" creates an open atmosphere of trust and only strengthens the human bond. "An apology is the elixir that defuses conflict," Kador said.
So what are the best ways to apologise, to be sincere, and own up to your blunders? Kador and Palmer offer the following tips:
Recognise openly why you are apologising. There are five components to a good apology, all beginning with the letter "R", noted Kador. First is recognition, stating why you are apologising, as you know you've done something wrong. Do this quickly, before too much time elapses, he said.
Accept responsibility. "The person apologising has to face up to what he or she has done and has to take responsibility for it," Palmer said. "Listen really hard as to how it made other people feel. What you're trying to do is to deepen that trust and deepen the relationship." Also, advised Kador, own up to your mistake without getting defensive.
Express remorse. Be genuinely regretful for your error and state that regret, Kador said. Say a clear, "I'm sorry", and avoid phrases such as, "I want to apologise", which is indirect. "That's like saying, 'I want to go on a diet' — and never quite getting to the diet," he noted.
Offer restitution. Once you openly recognise your wrongdoing, accept responsibility, and express remorse, then you need to make things right. For example, Kador said, if you drop someone's mobile phone and it breaks, buy them a new one; if you take credit for someone's idea, you need to figure out how to fix that issue, perhaps by making a public apology to the team. "Think about what you are prepared to do for restitution," he said. "Figure out what is reasonable and appropriate and generous, and offer that."
Don't repeat bad actions. The final step in a good apology, Kador noted, is to "promise not to repeat the offending behaviour, and follow through to honour that". Be sure you can deliver on that promise before offering it as part of your apology, he added.
Avoid "if" and "but". Many people apologise and use the words "if" and "but" as an excuse for their behaviour. For example, "I'm sorry I was late, but the roads were closed" or "I'm sorry if you were upset". In the latter case, you are blaming someone else for being too sensitive, Kador said. So when apologising, avoid saying "if" or "but", as it sidesteps a true and sincere apology.
Reflect on your faults and faux pas. It's important not only to apologise when you slip up, but also to evaluate your behaviour and ruminate about the episode. "One of the qualities of good leaders is the ability to reflect on a situation and take meaning from failures or mistakes," Palmer said. "Most of us know we're better people as a result."
— Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com.