When a Leader’s Apology Falls Flat

There are key elements to a proper ‘I’m sorry,’ communication experts say

Dana Wilkie By Dana Wilkie March 14, 2019
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​At the monthly meeting you host as a manager, you publicly congratulate Angela, Dave and Saima on the award-winning project they completed, then hand them spot bonuses. Trouble is, you forgot about Brad, who led the project.

Offering an apology is simple, right? You e-mail Brad, tell him how sorry you are and scramble to get his bonus check cut.

Wrong.

You reconvene the meeting, with the same participants. You admit you made a mistake and describe what it was. Then you apologize, ask for forgiveness and hand Brad his bonus.

Leaders may think they know how to issue a proper apology, but too often the apology falls flat, says Stacey Hanke, founder of Chicago-based communications company Stacey Hanke Inc. and author of Influence Redefined: Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be (Greenleaf Book Group, 2017).

Among the mistakes managers make: apologizing privately to the person who was wronged when the slight occurred in public; failing to actually utter the words "I'm sorry"; couching the apology with excuses and finger-pointing; and glossing over the details of the wrongdoing, leaving the apology sounding superficial.

"Apologies are something we love to receive and hate to give," Hanke said. "And especially as a leader, they are tough. They require a great deal of humility, which challenge your pride and ego. They are an open admission of failure and wrongdoing."

No Blame, No Excuses

Nancy Friedman is the author of nine books on customer service and is president of St. Louis-based Telephone Doctor, which helps companies communicate better with customers. She said leaders should apologize only after admitting they made a mistake and describing the mistake in detail. In the example above, the manager at the reconvened meeting might say, "I made a mistake yesterday when I acknowledged Angela, Dave and Saima for their hard work but failed to mention that Brad actually led the project."

Said Hanke: "The person affected needs to know what you are apologizing for. It allows you to acknowledge greater ownership."

What a leader shouldn't do is point fingers or make excuses for the error. Placing blame or trying to justify your actions will diminish the power of your apology and hurt your credibility. The manager's apology to Brad won't sound sincere if the manager says the reason he overlooked Brad was because his assistant failed to give him the names of all the project's contributors.

"The worst words a leader can use are 'I'm sorry but,' " said Sharon Hulce, president and CEO of Employment Resource Group in Appleton, Wis. "Apologies do not come with an excuse clause. 'I am sorry' is a full sentence. The only thought that should come after that is more of a reflection on how things can go more smoothly the next time around: 'I'm sorry, guys. That obviously didn't go the way any of us intended. Let's peel the onion and see where we can improve for next time.' "

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Another mistake leaders make, Hanke said, is rushing to give an apology before carefully considering their words. It probably won't go over well if Brad's manager blurts out, "I'm sorry. I didn't realize Brad had contributed so much to this project because he works from home so often."

"Before rushing into an apology, consider how the [recipient] will interpret what you're saying and how you say it," Hanke said. "What we say when admitting a mistake can affect the trust we establish in the relationship moving forward. If we don't consider our words carefully, we can add insult to injury."

The tone and delivery of an apology are just as important as the message itself, Hulce and Hanke said.

"Employees are extremely smart," Hulce said. "They can smell a fake apology a mile away. If they can't feel the sincerity in the [tone of the] apology, then it would be better not to give one at all. Leaders need to say what they mean and mean what they say."

Moreover, leaders should recognize when an apology needs to be delivered face to face. "Don't rely on technology to do your heavy lifting," Hanke said. "Look them in the eye and apologize. If face-to-face interactions aren't possible, pick up the phone. Let the offending person hear your voice and acknowledge your sincerity. Don't hide behind the screen."

Finally, ask for forgiveness and offer to fix any damage that was done.

"Say, 'I hope that my acknowledgment and apology will put us back in a good relationship,' " Freidman suggested. "Say, 'I will fix this for you,' then offer some suggestions."

As a leader, she added, you need to be able to say, "I'm not afraid to make a mistake, nor am I afraid to admit it.

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