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Great Managers Know When and How to Apologize

Great Managers Know When and How to Apologize

Bill Lampton, Ph.D.

June 23, 2009

As a business leader, you attend conferences that provide guidelines for managerial communication. However, there is one important communication strategy most training sessions don’t explore. So I invite you to consider when and how to apologize.

To clarify what I’m talking about, I’ll use Tom O’Leary’s definition of an apology as “taking responsibility for disturbance in a relationship.”

I confess, without reservation, that my twenty-three year management career included many mistakes. Possibly yours has, too. Examples:

-Playing favorites, giving more perks to staff members we like
-Deciding on a situation before we have all the facts
-Taking credit for an idea that originated with another team member
-Reprimanding an employee in a meeting
-Changing deadlines, upsetting everyone’s schedule
-Not giving a fair hearing to dissenters
-Failing to understand the personal needs of colleagues

Sound familiar?

Well then, how do we repair the damage and regain the credibility we lost? The answer isn’t complex. Just be willing to say you made a mistake and then offer an apology—one that is unmistakably sincere.

Now, I am aware that apologizing isn’t all that popular. Notice these common comments: “He’s his own man.” “He did it his way.” “She’s rather hard headed, but that’s her nature.” “Once she has made up her mind, she will never back down.”

Truly, that level of stubborn pride is unfortunate, because offering a genuine, heartfelt apology accomplishes wonders. Among them:

-You prevent having the hostility escalate.
-You repair a damaged relationship, even those that seemed hopeless.
-Instead of “losing face,” you will gain esteem
-You feel better, because apologizing is therapeutic
-Your associates will welcome your stance as a peacemaker

So what guidelines should you follow?

Well," you say, “sounds good. What guidelines should I follow?”

*Apologize without excuses. “I wasn’t feeling well that day” weakens your remorse.
*Apologize soon after the incident. “Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath” is an ancient adage that’s still true.
*Apologize face to face when possible. Extra power surfaces when we show up.
*Apologize to those who witnessed your misdeed, as well as to the recipient.
*Assure the injured party, “This won’t happen again.”

Then there is another vital step: Forgive yourself for your blunder, and move on to other priorities. Once you have righted a wrong, free yourself to give complete concentration to other problems that need your attention.

I repeat: An apology ranks among the highest levels of managerial communication. Genuine apologies work miracles, for those who give them and those who accept them.