“The art of what? Art of apology? Come on, Jack…that’s weird.” You may’ve heard me say before that leading and influencing people is more art than science. It’s true. Relating to people is more than a formula. Relating is a soft skill and soft skills are a big deal when it comes to leading.
We know that skills like public speaking, sales, customer relationships, etc. are all important arts; but what about the time you firebombed your leader in a meeting in front of her direct reports? What about the time you got busy and forgot to make it to an important annual review of a team member? Or the time you threw a low blow to a family member in your family business? These are all examples of wounds that, left unhealed, can become infected over time and lead to toxicity and apathy. A leader that can’t apologize will struggle with the long game of leading people and many times they won’t even know why.
Apologizing is a big deal personally and in business. But apologies are always personal, regardless of the setting. When you find yourself in a place where you need to apologize, (notice I said when; not if) here are 11 things that will help:
- Apologies must be sincere. Insincere apologies are worse than no apology at all.
- Apologies should happen fast. There is nothing more important than stopping bleeding you caused to someone else. Do it today if at all possible. If you need to cool down, it’s the first thing you do tomorrow.
- Apologize in person. Most of the effectiveness of your apology will come not from the words you say; but from your tone and body language. If being together in person isn’t possible, a phone call is second best. Text messages aren’t a good tool for apologies.
- Public offenses warrant public apologies. Whoever was there when you screwed up deserves to be there for the apology.
- Apologies should be specific. “I’m sorry.” is a good start; but “I’m sorry I lost my temper in our meeting yesterday. I was mad at something else and I took it out on you. You deserve better than that.” is A LOT better.
- Never water down your apology or use this time to reprimand. “I’m sorry I got angry. But next time, be sure to bring me what I asked for.” This is a reprimand, not an apology. Apologies and reprimands are both important skills; but keep them separate.
- Apologize in their language; not yours. You may prefer others to apologize quickly and use sarcasm to lighten the mood. But the person you offended may prefer a slower approach that is more sincere and gives them time to accept your apology.
- Apologies don’t undermine your ability to lead that person. You are still the leader. Invest the time to apologize the right way; but then move on and continue to lead. If the offense is so egregious that the person is not able to recover over time and follow you again, they should step down and find a new leader.
- Thoughtful apologies don’t have to take a lot of time. It’s the sincerity that counts. A well said, five-minute apology covers 99% of all offenses.
- Apologize enthusiastically. Be more upset by your actions than they are. “Jim, I am honestly embarrassed that those words ever came out of my mouth. You have put everything you have into this project and I just walked in and blew up over one minor detail. I’m really sorry.”
- End with a positive moment. Shake hands. If it’s family or a close friend, hug it out. Ask them about something they care about like how their recent pickleball tournament went. This puts a bow on the awkward moment and lets everyone move on together.
Apologies are as much a part of leading as vision casting or motivating. Become an expert at it and you will see the fruit in a big way.