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Managing Principals by Julia Kramer The Hardest Word

If you see an apology as a sign of weakness, you’re the weakness.

By  Julia Kramer

In life there comes a time when saying “I’m sorry” makes the difference between continuing a relationship and ending one. This is just as true in business as it is in our personal lives, but in both cases, as Elton John says so eloquently, “sorry seems to be the hardest word.”

Why is it so hard to say “I’m sorry”? There are many reasons, most of which have more to do with the emotional intelligence of the person needing to apologize than the situation. See if your reasons for not apologizing fall into the categories below and, if so, put some thought into whether your reasons make sense.

Apologies don’t belong in the workplace. If you mess up, particularly if it causes someone else undeserved grief, then an apology is an imperative. And not just for really big stuff, but also for the small pain you cause. For example, recently I had a meeting with a less senior person on staff. I was very stressed that day, and my facial expression, tone of voice and impatience let her know it. This was unfair to the employee—particularly since she in no way had caused my stress. I could have let her leave my office to wonder what she did to tick me off (and/or to ruminate on what a jerk I was), but instead I apologized and explained why I was so tense. She immediately nodded, looked relieved and smiled. I added that I appreciated her hard work on the project we were discussing. I know I didn’t completely erase the negatives, but the apology let her know that she was in no way responsible for my demeanor and that I valued our relationship enough to say “I’m sorry.” If you mess up, particularly if it causes someone else undeserved grief, then an apology is an imperative. And not just for really big stuff, but also for the small pain you cause. For example, recently I had a meeting with a less senior person on staff. I was very stressed that day, and my facial expression, tone of voice and impatience let her know it. This was unfair to the employee—particularly since she in no way had caused my stress. I could have let her leave my office to wonder what she did to tick me off (and/or to ruminate on what a jerk I was), but instead I apologized and explained why I was so tense. She immediately nodded, looked relieved and smiled. I added that I appreciated her hard work on the project we were discussing. I know I didn’t completely erase the negatives, but the apology let her know that she was in no way responsible for my demeanor and that I valued our relationship enough to say “I’m sorry.”

I didn’t cause the problem, so why apologize?
When you’re cleaning up someone else’s mess and are not happy about it, you sure don’t want to apologize for it. But let’s look at what an apology is and what it is not in this situation. An apology expresses feelings of compassion for what the other person is going through. An apology does not mean that you are to blame for the other person’s grief.When you’re cleaning up someone else’s mess and are not happy about it, you sure don’t want to apologize for it. But let’s look at what an apology is and what it is not in this situation. An apology expresses feelings of compassion for what the other person is going through. An apology does not mean that you are to blame for the other person’s grief.

Here’s an example. “Larry” communicated to his entire firm some serious misinformation about employee 401(k) contribution maximums. Many employees made financial decisions based on the information. Larry was on disability leave when the error was discovered, and “Carla” communicated the error to the staff. To her credit, Carla didn’t just dump the bad news on the employees. Instead, she spoke individually to each affected person. She apologized on behalf of the firm by saying, “I am so sorry this has happened, but I want to help you get through it.” She offered guidance and support. Carla not only communicated as directed, but she defused the anger and blame and strengthened her work relationships, all in one fell swoop. Pretty good ROI if you ask me.

Apologies are a sign of weakness. Au contraire! Years ago, I reported to a CEO whose mantra was, “I may be wrong, but I am never unsure.” He stood behind every well-thought-out decision he made, but he was smart enough to realize that he couldn’t be right every time. He was a confident visionary and knew an honest mistake was no reflection on his intelligence and ability to lead. In fact, it was just this ability to say “mea culpa” that made him such a brilliant leader. By setting this strong example, he gave those around him the freedom to take well informed and well intentioned risks, which led to innovation and creativity. A weaker person could not have pulled this off.

I’ll apologize, but only if it helps get my point across. Unfortunately, this is a very common but manipulative practice. If you’re not sure whether you’re an honest or dishonest apologizer, see if you find yourself saying, “I’m sorry, BUT (insert why it’s not your fault and/or why it’s their fault)” For example, “I’m sorry that I yelled at you, BUT I get really tired of hearing your excuses for not getting your work done on time!” This approach is akin to the infamous coaching technique called a “(rhymes-with-hit) sandwich” in which the bad news is layered between two slices of good news. Instead of this rigmarole, just say, “I’m really sorry for yelling at you. Yelling at work is inappropriate under any circumstances, and I feel awful about it. I’d like to have a separate discussion about why I got so angry, but for now, I just want to apologize for my lack of control. I hope you can accept my apology.”

Unfortunately, this is a very common but manipulative practice. If you’re not sure whether you’re an honest or dishonest apologizer, see if you find yourself saying, “I’m sorry, BUT (insert why it’s not your fault and/or why it’s their fault)” For example, “I’m sorry that I yelled at you, BUT I get really tired of hearing your excuses for not getting your work done on time!” This approach is akin to the infamous coaching technique called a “(rhymes-with-hit) sandwich” in which the bad news is layered between two slices of good news. Instead of this rigmarole, just say, “I’m really sorry for yelling at you. Yelling at work is inappropriate under any circumstances, and I feel awful about it. I’d like to have a separate discussion about why I got so angry, but for now, I just want to apologize for my lack of control. I hope you can accept my apology.”

Even when we know it’s the right thing to do, apologizing can be incredibly difficult. But “sorry” doesn’t have to be the hardest word. Practice pays off, and what is initially difficult becomes easier.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President.


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