Summary: An apology is an important way to earn trust, show responsibility and signal understanding (as long as it isn’t an apology for who you are).
I was at a party once and found myself in a conversation (lecture more like it) with an individual who wanted to share with me his interpretations of what makes for good leadership-communication. His number one advice? Never apologize.
“Never?” I asked.
“No matter what the situation.”
(Sheesh. Even O’Reilly will sort-of apologize sometimes)
Okay. First of all, I disagree with this advice. However, let’s begin with a few possible reasons why anyone would think that apologizing is wrong.
1. It shows weakness.
2. Demonstrates a lack of self-control
3. It admits fault (duh)
I can understand that in an alpha-male environment apologies might be perceived as some sort of weakness, but perhaps that depends on the type of apology. I do think that there is one type of apology that will always reduce your credibility and perception and that is when we apologize for who we are.
Self-apologies are those apologies which ironically deflect blame by claiming some sort of deficiency of self. For example, when someone shows up late and says, “I’m sorry for being late, I’m terrible at keeping track of time.” Or when someone makes a mistake, “I’m sorry for making so many mistakes on this document, I am terrible at editing.” We could go on for awhile on these types, but I’m sure that we all know what I mean.
These types of apologies are an excuse and tend to diminish our credibility and signal a kind of incompetence. They are usually used as a deflection and an attempt to pass along responsibility. They often don’t really believe that they are deficient; it is just a good excuse. If you ever want to test this theory, when someone apologizes for being terrible at something like showing up on time, just affirm it and see what happens.
(Most likely this)
Truth is that most people don’t want to hear others (especially those we expect to be leaders) to apologize for who they are. It is confusing and creates a kind of helplessness. So, what’s a good kind of apology?
As long as you are not apologizing for existing or using “I’m sorry” as a passive-aggressive deflection, you might actually be able to use it as a tool to seem more trustworthy and likeable.
In Heidi Grant Halvorson’s book No One Understands You And What To Do About It, she cites a recent study that shows how superfluous apologies (meaning apologies that aren’t about you or anything that you are responsible for) can earn you greater trust.
Example: “I’m sorry about the rain.”
How does this work?
From her book:
“Researchers at Harvard Business School and Wharton had a male undergraduate approach sixty-five strangers in a large train station on rainy days and ask to borrow their cell phone. Half the time, he included the superfluous apology ‘I’m so sorry about the rain!’ before asking, ‘Can I borrow your cell phone?’ A remarkable 47 percent of those who received the superfluous apology gave him the cell phone, compared with only 9 percent who did not.” (No One Understands You…, Heidi Grant Halvorson, pg 70-1)
Uh, I’m not a statistician or anything, but a 38% difference seems like a lot.
Okay fine, you say. That makes sense when I apologize for things that have nothing to do with me. What about when I apologize for my own mistakes? Won’t I look like a total weenie?
(Sorry, I had to get that in there for some reason.)
The answer is no, no you won’t.
In fact, the research suggests the opposite. As Halvorson points out: “Recent research shows that people who are willing to take responsibility for their own failures and for the failures of the teams in which they work are perceived to have greater character, more personal integrity, and more positive intentions toward others–all powerful facilitators of trust.”
For those who are keeping track of this, Jim Collins has been talking about this in his research and his books like Good to Great. The main key ingredient to all successful leaders, other than drive (which many have) is humility.
(This book has sold about a kagillion copies, so there must be a LOT of humble leaders out there…)
As in most assumptions, the thought that leaders can’t be vulnerable is really an obstacle to better success. It keeps us from the fact that taking responsibility and ownership of a problem and tackling it with humility and honesty is more important than being right.
Besides, what’s the point of being right if no one trusts you or wants to listen?
(We know it is true because it was on television)
So go ahead and apologize for the rain, the Red Sox and the egg salad not tasting quite as fresh this week.
Go ahead and take responsibility for the team under-performing or for sales being less than the projections, as long as you don’t make an excuse or apologize for existing. The focus will be more on you for a bit, but you will earn more trust and credibility if you are willing to be responsible and actually do something about it.