Apologies 101: Make Things Right

May 1, 2022 | Workforce

By John Baldoni

You know you made the right decision. And the decision was well made. The problem is the results were not. So now you’re on the hot seat and people are clamoring for your head. What do you do? Apologize!

Steps to Take

Every good apology has three operative elements: acknowledgment, acceptance and amends.

Acknowledge the wrong. First, say you are sorry for what occurred. People may be suffering. Acknowledge the pain and the loss. Make it known you understand their pain. Demonstrate empathy by showing compassion.

Accept the consequences. Shoulder the blame. Make it known that you hold yourself accountable and will work to rectify the situation. In the wake of the failed invasion in the Bay of Pigs, President John Kennedy, just four months in office, said, “Victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan.”

Make amends. People are disappointed, frustrated, and maybe even disillusioned. They don’t want speeches; they want actions. Talk about what you and your team will do immediately. Get working on the problems and take corrective measures.

No Excuses!

Keep in mind an operative principle of apologies: It’s not about you. It’s about them. A leader who discusses everything he did to avoid the mistake may tell the truth, but those suffering do not want to hear it. Instead, they want to know that the person responsible for the error is focused on making things better.

Good apologies all contain one key element: No finger-pointing. A senior leader often makes an apology, even when he or she may not be directly responsible. But as the top person, it becomes your job to own the situation. So you don’t point fingers. Instead, you swallow your pride, and you take the heat.

Anyone can make excuses except those in charge. “Never ruin a good apology with an excuse,” said Ben Franklin. You can provide the backstory, but when you do make it clear that you are not excusing yourself, you are merely giving context. Own the decision and its consequences.

Doing this will make people recognize that you have something we all want: a backbone. By making amends and correcting the situation, you create a path forward for your team, your organization, and maybe your reputation.

Move Forward

No leader makes the right calls at the right time. But great leaders make things right when things go wrong. As Winston Churchill once quipped, “Success in life is the ability to move from one mistake to another without losing enthusiasm.” Defeat is not the end unless you let it define you.

There are, of course, mistakes that require a leader to step down. But, in the grand scheme of things, those occasions are rare. When they involve moral transgressions, removal from the position is a good thing. When they include mistakes in judgment, regard them as “teachable moments.”

Apologies are but the first step toward creating a better future. Forget this at your peril.

Never Say “If” When You Apologize

“If I offended anyone…” That statement rips through the heart of every public relations professional when they hear a client stand up and use the conditional “if” while making an apology. Nothing undercuts sincerity like the conditional “if” does.

Imagine this. You are in a boutique that sells fine china. You have a backpack draped over your shoulder. You turn slightly to see another display, only to hear the crash of china smashing to the floor in bits.

The store owner comes running over with a look of horror. You say, “If I broke this china, sorry.”

Of course you broke the china; it’s lying in a hundred pieces on the floor. There are no ifs, ands, or buts when you do something careless or hurtful.

An Offense Provokes a Response

How do we know this? Because you are making an apology. We don’t apologize for saying nice things about other people. We apologize when we say something stupid that offends.

Using the conditional “if” is supposed to let you off the hook. But, instead, what we are saying is, “I didn’t know what I was saying.” Admitting something like that in public does nothing to improve your authenticity. If true, you sound clueless. If not – which is more likely the case – you seem insincere.

The Origin of Apology

The real problem with using the conditional “if “in an apology is that you are putting your ego ahead of another person’s pain. By using “if” you are saying, “Hey, I am only doing this because my boss (my company, my banker, my spouse, etc.) want me to.”

Such words are in keeping with the word’s original meaning, apologia, which means “in defense of.” Until the 17th century, apologias were made in defense of a cause. But something changed. According to the Merriam-Webster definition, William Shakespeare is credited with popularizing apology as in, “I’m sorry.” And to which he added something even more critical: Forgiveness. When you make a mistake, own it. Again. And ask for forgiveness.

Quality of Mercy

An apology is to say that you are sorry, not that you “may have offended.” Sorrow is a way of showing compassion to someone you have wronged. Apologizing is not a sign of weakness; it is an admission of humility. You put yourself at the mercy of another. As the Bard wrote in The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” A good apology may evoke the need for forgiveness, which as Shakespeare notes, rewards the one who forgives as well as the one who is forgiven. Nothing to be sorry about in that sentiment.

John Baldoni is a globally recognized leadership educator, certified Master Corporate Executive Coach, and author of 15 books that have been translated into ten languages. John established a career as a highly sought-after executive coach, where he has had the privilege of working with senior leaders in virtually every industry from pharmaceutical to real estate, packaged goods to automobiles, and finance to health care. John is also the host of LinkedIn Live’s GRACE under pressure interview series, a platform that has enabled him to interview more a hundred global business, academic and thought leaders and doers. Learn more from John at www.johnbaldoni.com. (This article was reprinted with permission.)

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