When we make a mistake, most of us understand that we owe an apology. We know this because when we are hurt by a mistake made by someone else, we want that person to apologize to us.
|What is Apology?
Apology is the practice of extending ourselves because we value the relationship more than we value the need to be right. We apologize when we accept responsibility for an offense or mistake and express our remorse in a direct, personal, and unambiguous manner, offering restitution and promising not to do it again.
There are many reasons why leaders don’t apologize when they make a mistake. We may be afraid of the consequences of admitting our mistake. We may be unsure about who we owe the apology to. We may even be unaware that our mistake created victims. But I think the main reason why leaders who make mistakes don’t apologize is because we really don’t know how, and we are afraid of doing something that will make a bad situation even worse.
This blog offers a quick course in how to apologize effectively.
The first step is for leaders to understand that an apology is the most courageous conversation we can have with ourselves. Yes, an apology is for the benefit of those we offend, and for their sakes we need to do it right, but it also has important benefits for the apologizer. Apologizing brings a healthy dose of self-awareness, keeps the leader accountable, and generates clarity about the situation and how to avoid repeating it.
|Five Apology Busters
As in “I certainly apologize if I offended anyone” or “I’m sorry if you considered my remarks offensive.” The word “if” qualifies the apology out of an apology. Using the word “if”, the apologizer says the offense may or may not have happened at all and even if the offense did happen, the damage has more to do with the sensibilities of the victim than the responsibility of the apologizer. This is infuriating for the victim, for whom the offense is very real.
As in, I am very sorry, but you started it,” or “I apologize, but I thought you wouldn’t mind.” The word “but” is almost always guaranteed to botch an apology. The goal is to deflect some of the responsibility of the offense from ourselves. Guess who’s the lucky beneficiary of the responsibility the offender is so generously willing to share?
As in “I am sorry my remarks may have been misinterpreted” or “It’s possible I may have said something offensive.” Using the word “may” as a conditional in an apology is another way to distance yourself from accountability. The use of “may” serves to turn very a real offense into a mere hypothetical.
4. Passive Voice
As in the passive “I’m sorry you were hit” or “It’s too bad that your reputation was damaged” when what you mean is “I’m sorry I hit you” or “I apologize for damaging your reputation. The passive voice is another way of avoiding responsibility when you have done something you don’t want to accept responsibility for. The classic formulation: “mistakes were made.”
5. I Want to Apologize
As in “I want to apologize to you.” “I want to apologize” may sound like an apology, but is no more about actually apologizing than “I want to lose weight” is about actually losing weight. It’s good to want to apologize; it’s better to actually do it.
Most of all, apology commits the leader to the practice of humility, which may be the most powerful position from which to lead. Abandoning the need to be infallible allows leaders to be more curious and self-correcting. The best leaders earn that distinction not by being perfect, but by acknowledging when their mistakes hurt someone, taking responsibility, expressing remorse, making restitution, and promising not to do it again.
Today, apology is increasingly accepted as a sign of strength, not weakness. Leaders who apologize are seen as confident, signaling the three qualities that most modern leaders desire to communicate: humility, transparency, and accountability. Effective apology does not come easy—none of us likes admitting that we made a mistake—nor does it come without cost, but it is less costly than the alternatives of denial, deception, and cover-up.
Effective apologies are as unique as the offenses that inspire them, but they all have five components. I call these the five Rs of effective apology.
Recognition—acknowledging the offense—establishes that an offense requiring apology has been committed. To the offender this step may seem as obvious as the offense itself, and therefore it may be tempting to just get through the apology or “get on with it.” But more often than not, skipping the recognition step results in a statement that just compounds the offense because it leaves the victim uncertain whether the apologizer understands why the victim is so upset. Recognizing the offense requires the offender to consider at least three questions:
1. What am I apologizing for?
2. What was the impact of my behaviors on the victim?
3. What social norm or value did I violate?
Responsibility—The key to effective apology is taking responsibility for your role in the consequences of your behavior. It lays the moral agency for those offenses squarely and solely at the feet of the offender. What distinguishes effective from half-hearted apologies is the integrity that offenders demonstrate when they look deep into their hearts and reckon uncompromisingly with what they find there. In fearlessly pushing away all excuses, the apologizer retains undiluted responsibility. Underlying it all is the intention that the offender values the relationship and desires to rebuild it on terms agreeable to the victim.
Remorse—signals the offender’s contrition. Remorse is the feeling that we get when we realize that something we did harmed specific people, that it was wrong, and we wish we could undo what we did. Using the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” is nonnegotiable. It is, in fact, the entire reason for the apology, and without such an expression you may as well not bother with the apology at all. Body language, facial expression, and tone of voice must be consistent with the words you use.
Restitution—is the practical attempt to restore the relationship to what it was before you broke it. You can’t talk your way out of a situation you acted your way into. For serious breaches, the apology must have some element of action. Without restitution, it becomes more difficult for offended parties to accept an apology, however well crafted. How could they? The relationship remains unbalanced. The offender continues to benefit to the disadvantage of the victim. It is no wonder that victims and judges alike pay careful attention to what an offender actually does in the way of restitution, because restitution is the clearest expression of the offender’s desire to restore the relationship.
Repetition—is a promise to the victim that the offender will not repeat the offense. A particularly effective phrase is a variant of, “I promise it will never happen again.” It is often effective to end the apology with such a commitment; communication theory suggests that people remember best what they hear last. An effective apology contains within it the answer to the question, “How am I to be held accountable?” It takes more than apology to get past old habits. It requires a commitment to new values and a constant reminder that we have the ability to learn from our mistakes.
There are three things that are real: accidents, human fallibility, and apology. The first two are pretty much beyond our comprehension or control, so we must do what we can with the third. The purpose of apology is to extend ourselves in such a way that relationships become deeper, and life becomes richer and more human in the process. All we have to do is honor the impulse—and practice. It’s not always easy, but we rarely wrestle with apology and lose.