The Power of a Leader’s Apology

Not My FaultYesterday, I was re-watching the movie Star Trek Into Darkness, and I arrived at one section toward the end where the crew of a crippled USS Enterprise was facing imminent destruction. Despite all of Captain Kirk’s pleading, the enemy continued to charge up their weapons. Faced with defeat, Captain Kirk turned to his crew and uttered the words “I’m sorry.”

This powerful moment in the film sheds light on the fact that leaders don’t apologize much, making this scene even more striking. And yet, there are times where leaders make mistakes—and in those moments, it can be difficult to apologize. Whether it is ego, whether it is because they had been confident of the process and outcome, or whether it is simply forgetfulness, apologies are not commonplace.  Still, there are many dissatisfied employees in workplaces today who may feel they are deserving of an apology.

Even though it’s not easy to apologize, saying “sorry” can make you more transparent and allow a deeper level of trust to occur between you and your direct reports. It can also show that you are relatable and human, as well as demonstrate your integrity and willingness to change. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should apologize every day—but sometimes when a mistake is made an apology should follow.

Have you done something that led to a less-than-favorable outcome? Perhaps you passed a person up for a raise, reprimanded someone a bit too harshly, or gave a direct report so much work they became overwhelmed and stressed. Remember that even if your intentions weren’t to harm, if the other person perceives your behavior as hurtful they will feel hurt. In these moments an apology is important. It acknowledges your own wrongdoing and communicates to the other person your commitment to growth and improvement.

When you do apologize:

  1. State the context. Outline the situation by starting with phrases like “Remember when…” or “That other day when…” and describe the behaviors that took place. Especially if the event happened a while ago, it may be good to refresh the person’s memory.
  2. Acknowledge the other person by stating the impact of your behavior on them. Say, “When I did that, you looked…” or “I noticed you didn’t go to lunch like you usually do after what happened.” Remember to be objective and focus on the behaviors you directly observed, leaving out any inferences.
  3. Avoid explanations and focus on the future. No one wants to hear an apology that is followed by the word but. Don’t offer reasons for what you did—instead, provide reassurances that you are working to grow and improve so that such an event doesn’t happen again.

Apologizing is not easy, but when you learn how to do it properly, it becomes less difficult over time. And when you do say “sorry,” you—and the person you say it to—will be glad you did.

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