“Never apologize,“ my father used to say. “It’s a sign of weakness.”
I heard this and other phrases often from a man who immigrated to the United States in 1903 at the age of 20 without knowing a word of English and, as he used to say, 22 cents in his pocket. By the time I came along, he was 60, a successful lawyer and municipal judge, a father of six and without a hint of an accent in his perfect English.
After graduating with a Masters in human service, I went to Law school, following my dad, my sister and three brothers. Once I graduated law school, I launched a career as an executive in the nonprofit child welfare world. As the person in charge, it didn’t take me long to learn that my father’s admonishment against apologizing was, most of the time, the dumbest advice anyone hoping to be a successful leader could follow. I learned in fact, the opposite to be true: the ability to apologize when appropriate can be the ultimate sign of a great leader.
My dad might have been confusing weakness with vulnerability. I know when I apologize I feel very open and exposed. It is difficult to admit that you aren’t perfect, particularly when you want to be the strong leader that your team can count on to point the way. Confessing that you too have weaknesses can feel alarmingly revealing. Knowing my dad, I believe that he hated to feel like that and equated it with weakness.
Many besides my dad suggested that apologizing shows vulnerability—in his mind, a terrible trait in anyone. I don’t think vulnerability is a terrible trait, however. The truth is that it is difficult or impossible for people to follow a leader who does not periodically show that she or he is human. In fact, it’s clear to me that strategic vulnerability is a priceless leadership skill.
Owning a mistake and making amends is a critical leadership and management strategy. Why? Because without apologies, there is blame. Somebody was at fault when a mistake was made, or someone’s feelings were hurt. If it wasn’t me the leader, then it must be you the direct report. If it wasn’t either of us, then if must be the janitor. Again.
Strategic apologizing is way to demonstrate that not only is it okay to be human, but also that taking responsibility for one’s mistakes shows a strength in character. Not apologizing is the real sign of weakness.
So what makes a great apology? A few things in my opinion.
- A sincere motivation to keep the other person whole–or at least, not to cause someone to feel diminished. No one wins if anyone loses, i.e., feels put down or used.
- Genuineness in the act. Fake apologies make the situation worse. So be sure that when you are apologizing that you are genuine and have the right motivation at the heart of it. To be effective, the apology must be sincere. If you aren’t sorry, it will show–and diminish both the person and the relationship even further.
- Demonstrating empathy for how the other feels. It’s hard sometimes, especially when you are angry, to be empathetic to the other person’s feelings. Since apologies are about self-awareness and your affect on others, take time to consider how your actions made the other person feel. Emphasize that your action made them feel that way and explain that you didn’t intend that outcome.
- A clear “I’m sorry” statement. Sometimes people avoid saying they are sorry by distancing themselves from the situation; i.e. “I hate when this happens,” or “This is why I don’t blah-blah…” The situation needs you to own up to a mistake and apologize for it. So say it, clearly, and preferably as a stand alone sentence with no modifiers attached to it.
- Address how you will avoid it in the future. Mistakes are opportunities for learning. When you decide to change your mindset, you will change your behavior. Use your apology as a time to explain how you will avoid that behavior in the future and you will likely get an even better response from your audience. People like those who take responsibility and ask for forgiveness. They don’t like those who shift blame and refuse to change poor behavior.
- And, finally, some “don’ts”:
- Don’t apologize for something you didn’t do.
- Don’t over apologize and don’t under apologize
- Don’t over do it. Constant apologizing can indeed be a sign of weakness. Hearing someone say “I’m sorry” constantly—sometimes for just taking up space—is at best tiresome and at worst drives people away.
- Don’t accept blame for another’s blunder (unless in those times when your leadership strategy should be “the buck starts here.”)
- And, most important, don’t repeat the same error again. Multiple apologies for repeated behavior are worse than not apologizing at all.
To think that because you are a leader you don’t make mistakes is foolish and can lead to nowhere good in your career. Most people recognize that everyone makes mistakes. It doesn’t make you weak to admit it. It makes you a stronger leader that is worthy of his or her team’s trust.
Judy Nelson is a certified professional coach, consultant, and leadership trainer. With more than 35 years executive experience, Nelson uses her exceptional credentials and experience as a nonprofit CEO, trained attorney and social worker to help strengthen the leadership styles and team performance of individuals and organizations. In addition, she co-authored the book, Leading the Way to Success and periodically hosts a web radio show of the same name. She lives with her husband in southern California.