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Why You Should Be the First To Apologize, And 5 Keys to Doing It Well

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 action.

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 it’s 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?

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 “defence”.

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 defence 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.

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What helps you apologize?

What bothers you about the way others apologize?

Leave a comment!

Why You Should Be the First To Apologize, And 5 Keys to Doing It Well

20 Comments

  1. Beth Smith McCaw on April 27, 2020 at 5:36 pm

    Apologies are hard, true enough. But what about those of us who tend to over-apologize? Is there a blog post on NOT apologizing and taking responsibility when you legitimately aren’t at fault?

    I don’t have a problem with apologizing when I’ve messed up, but I do have an unhelpful habit of apologizing repeatedly for things – which makes it about me and not the apology, of course. Any wisdom?

  2. Brian on April 25, 2020 at 5:16 pm

    It’s amazing how far an apology (or at least owning your error) can go toward getting you grace. I’ve had many times when a situation was a big mystery and a lot of “how did this happen?” went on. I finally owned my part and my team was like “oh, okay.” and that was the end of the issue. I have found people respect me MORE when I’m willing to own my part in an issue, rather than look down on me.
    I’m sure I’ll be testing that theory out many more times in leadership. 🙂

  3. Douglas Latimer on April 25, 2020 at 4:38 pm

    I love your post, Carey! May I recommend a book by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas that changed my life? – “The Five Languages of Apology.” The book brings to light certain phrases that individuals may need to hear to believe he/she received an apology. If the authors are correct, the ultimate goal is not just to apologize, but to apologize using word choices that the receiver of the apology will embrace as an apology. I have found the book helpful as implementing the authors’ suggestions has greatly increased the healthiness of my relationships. Enjoy!

  4. Daryl on April 25, 2020 at 1:02 pm

    Yep, bang on. Had to do that last week when I went over the deacons’ heads on a diaconal opportunity. In hindsight I realized that with so much out of control, I was grasping to control something good… rather than delegating well and letting other leaders shine. A straight up apology helped reestablish trust, thank God.

  5. Jacques Alexanian on April 25, 2020 at 11:48 am

    Forgive me! I do not like the word «apologise». I guess «please forgive me» is more humiliating .

    J.A.

  6. Brad Carman on April 25, 2020 at 10:48 am

    I think sometimes apologies happen too quickly and short-cut needed discussion and clarification so that the “offense” is not continually repeated. Intimacy trust are not achieve through short-cutting communication usually just to diffuse what might be a volatile situation. When there is an attempt to communicate, there are things implied by the sender that are loaded with his/her feelings, intentions, attitudes, and thoughts and things inferred by the receiver filtered through their feelings, intentions, attitudes and thoughts. Those F.I.A.T.s that are so different and diverse are the source of many offenses. Thus, what is needed is better communication and understanding, not the quick apology. When two parties engage in apologia in the Greek sense, both with open minds and humble hearts, offense is diminished and the “I’m sorry” becomes less necessary.
    When there is understanding and apology it is needed, I am in full agreement with an apology being quick, unqualified, owned and genuine. Apologies that are too quick often often disingenuous and cowardly acts, for which apology needs to be made.

  7. Nick on February 18, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    Here is a textbook non-apology I recently received in a text message from one of my elders:

    Hey Nick, I read in a letter that you are upset at me for making you loose out on a gig. I had no idea that I had in some way wronged you that way. I was floored about the accusations and felt denied for not being able to explaining my actions. I don’t think I’m unapproachable yet you may. I’m not one who bully’s people to get my way.
    All I know is that we communicated about Christmas 2019 and then this letter surfaced stating we had a disagreement. I didn’t get that from our last conversation. What I remember was my expressing your musicianship with the kids at your school. Of what clips I saw on FB and how impressed I was of your leadership. Please forgive me if I have offended you in any way. I wish you could have informed me of my actions. Forgive me for bringing grief to you and your family in some way I’m not a person that’s unapproachable hope we can sit down and rectify this.

  8. dumplins on July 17, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    So frustrated with this. I am not a pastor, but a pastor’s wife. Some major things have taken place with our staff lately and I am angry about it. Because it concerns my husband’s health, it literally is a life or death situation. But no one will take personal responsibility. I have prayed about it and sought counsel from another pastor. I believe I have nothing to apologize for because I have done nothing wrong. Now, they are all uncomfortable around me. But they dropped the ball. But I’m the bad guy. How can I apologize when I know I did nothing wrong. Because to me, that is an integrity issue.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 20, 2014 at 4:14 pm

      I don’t know your name, and I can understand why you wouldn’t share it, but I can just say that’s a tough situation. I hope and pray you find some wise friends/people around you who can help you through it. I’m sorry about your husband. As far as apologies go, sometimes there is nothing to apologize for. Other time, I just own the slice that is mine, even if it’s a small one.

  9. Brent Dumler on July 14, 2014 at 8:33 pm

    This is so huge, Carey. I actually experienced this a few months ago with a team member. But they had to come to me to point it out. I had no idea there was an offense to deal with. In my current transition at our church I had allowed myself to get consumed by new work requirements and assumed she was doing fine in her ministry area. Thankfully, she shared with me in a supervision meeting that I had been distant and hands-off. I’m so thankful that I did not react defensively (which I’ve done in the past). But I had to both recognize this and validate her feelings, AND ask for forgiveness. Both of us benefited so much from this that we openly shared it with the rest of the team in hopes that they would do the same when they need to.

  10. Lawrence Wilson on July 10, 2014 at 7:51 am

    You might add one more: “Stop talking.” Adding words after “I’m sorry” of tens turn into defending or justifying.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 10, 2014 at 9:27 am

      Yes Lawrence. Great point!

  11. Deb Toth on July 10, 2014 at 7:32 am

    beautiful and effective way to gain trust as well, its as if you start on level ground and move together.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 10, 2014 at 9:28 am

      Such a great perspective – being on ground level together and moving forward!

  12. Ann on July 9, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    Bringing ourselves to say three words:

    I WAS WRONG.

    It’s not easy, but so healing for both parties, especially followed up with a sincere, “Will you forgive me?” and an action plan for the future, “In the future, I plan to speak to you in a much gentler, more respectful tone of voice.” This is an important life skill for all of us, not only in leadership, but in our families. Our children deserve to hear us say, “I was wrong!” as well!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 10, 2014 at 9:28 am

      Very true! Thanks Ann!

      • Laura Trent on April 25, 2020 at 7:05 am

        Excellent, Carey!
        You’re right: real apologies from leaders can reset the entire situation and allow new beginnings, both to the issue involved and to new things, and they can also offer closer connections in teams.
        Leaders can also learn from these situations to be more mindful and pay closer attention to their own actions and thoughts and their possible consequences, which makes them better leaders.
        Now, any way we can offer these thoughts to our government leaders?…

  13. Best_I_Not_Say on July 9, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    A few years ago my former church went through a devastating power struggle over the selection of a Sr. Pastor after the beloved long time Sr. Pastor retired. In angry protest to the selection, a large group quit serving, attending, and tithing. During that time, their representatives viciously hijacked board meetings, used Facebook and internet grip sites to ridicule the new Pastor, the board, and other church members who supported the new Pastor and his plans to revitalize the church. Sadly, he was forced to resign within a few months, and they returned, causing another large group to feel bullied, and many quietly walked away forever. Eventually they selected a new Sr. Pastor who would fit nicely into their mold.

    The folks who ‘won’ never once apologized for putting politics over people, for so easily tossing precious relationships, for publicly shaming those they disagreed with, and they never showed a hint of remorse for bringing the church to its financial knees.

    I can’t tell you how restorative a simple “I’m sorry, I was wrong, I apologize” from anyone could have been at that time. Too late now of course. The church somehow still exists, drowning in debt, with a steadily graying congregation and precious few youth and young adults remaining.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on July 12, 2014 at 7:45 am

      I realize why you didn’t sign your name, but thanks. I couldn’t agree more. Stories like this break my heart. Thanks for sharing.

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