You probably have a love/hate relationship with apologies.
You appreciate it deeply when others apologize to you.
But you find it difficult to apologize to others.
And let me guess, when you do apologize, you’re tempted to explain, justify or defend your actions.
Which is not really an apology at all.
Please hear this. Two of the most powerful words a leader can utter are simply “I apologize”.
One of the reasons those two words are so powerful is because we hear them so rarely from leaders.
Think back over your life. When has a leader come to you, looked you straight in the eye, and offered an unconditional apology?
Rarely is my guess. Maybe never.
So let’s change that.
Here’s how.Two of the most powerful words a leader can utter are: I apologize. Click To Tweet
5 Ways to Apologize Well in Leadership
At its heart, an apology is ownership. It says “I was responsible”. Whether you intended to hurt someone or mess up a situation is irrelevant.
Mature, responsible leaders know they are the problem, and they work hard to see and claim their share of anything that went wrong. They’re quick to accept blame, and even faster to assign credit to others when things go well.
These leaders know it’s not about them. It’s about the mission and the team.
So how do you apologize well in leadership?Mature, responsible leaders know they are the problem, and they work hard to see and claim their share of anything that went wrong. Click To Tweet
Here are five guidelines that have helped me and that I’ve appreciated when I’ve seen them at work in other leaders:
1. Go first
Often when a situation gets messed up, people are wondering what to do with it. Sweep it under the rug? Let it go? Wait for someone else to take the lead.
If you’re a leader–even if you’re not the senior leader–take the initiative. Go first.
If you do, you’ll not only break the ice, you’ll give others permission to take their share of responsibility AND you’ll make the situation better.
So go first.
2. Say it in person, but if you can’t, don’t delay
Ideally, you will take the person or people involved aside, look them in the eye and own your part of the problem (which sometimes is 100% of the problem).
But if you’re not going to see them soon, don’t delay.
In the last week, I’ve sent two emails to apologize for the tone in which I communicated something because I knew I wasn’t going to see the person within 24 hours.
Whatever you do, own what you need to own quickly.
3. Be specific about what went wrong and what you did
When things go wrong, the temptation is to be vague.
“Well, I’m not really sure what happened but I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
“I don’t really know why it didn’t get done, but I’ll make sure it won’t happen again.”
I hear this all the time and it drives me crazy.
Really? How can you be sure it never happens again if you don’t even know what happened?
Being vague on the details is a sign that you don’t really care enough to figure out what happened.
Great leaders do solid post mortems on tough situations so they can figure out what happened, what they could have done to avoid it, and then figure out how to not let it happen again.
When you’re owning a situation and apologizing for your role in it, being as specific as you can makes your apology mean more and makes you much more effective as a leader moving forward.You can't promise something won't happen again if you haven't bothered to figure out what happened. Click To Tweet
4. Don’t defend
Our word “apology” comes from the Greek word απολογια (apologia), which means “defense”.
That’s not a bad thing when you’re engaging in apologetics (defending or advancing a belief system), but it’s a terrible thing to do when you are actually apologizing.
Saying things like “If she had delivered the first version to me on time I would have had it done on time” doesn’t help.
A defense is often an abdication of responsibility.
Don’t defend yourself. Don’t blame others.
Just own it and apologize.
5. Don’t justify
This is closely related to not defending yourself, but it’s so natural and common to justify your failure that it deserves mentioning.
Sure, traffic might have been slow. But you should have left 10 minutes earlier.
Yes, the shipment was delayed, but your job was to get it there on time, wasn’t it?
Absolutely, you were tired. But just because you were tired doesn’t mean you can dump all over people.
Those may be explanations, but they are not justifications. They don’t make what you did or failed to do right.
Never use an explanation as a justification. Even if you talk about reasons, still own your failure 100% (“I was really tired, but I was also really wrong. I apologize.”)
Take responsibility.An explanation is not a justification. Own your piece. Click To Tweet
I find that when I apologize using these guidelines, things go much better for the team and for me. Why? Because I grow, and I learn. And I become a better leader when I take full responsibility.
Work on your leadership. Not Just In It.
When you are tired and burning out, you are way more likely to say or do something that you regret. Becoming more productive can help you avoid that.
13 years ago, I hit a wall. I burned out.
I was seen as an effective leader, but my methods were killing me on the insight.
I moved through burnout and on the other side, got coaching and counseling that helped me create a new normal. A new normal that radically boosted my productivity and helped me beat overwhelm and get my life and leadership back.
I’ve put all my learnings so far into my High Impact Leader course. The High Impact Leader is an online, on-demand course designed to help you get time, energy and priorities working in your favor. So far, over 3000 leaders have beat overwhelm using the course and either stayed clear of burnout or come back from it.
Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day. That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.
Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course”
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What helps you apologize?
What bothers you about the way others apologize?
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