To Apologize, or Not To Apologize, That Is The Question. Actually There Is No Question; Apologize.

“I’ve always considered the willingness to admit you’ve made a mistake and to apologize for doing so one of the best attributes a person can have.”

That was a line from one of my previous posts, one where I had written about how impressed I was when Dear Abby offered the following apology to her readers:

Of course you are right. The woman’s question wasn’t about etiquette. It was about child safety. A large number of readers besides you agreed my perspective was off. I have heard all of you loud and clear, and I apologize.

The reason for bringing this up again is that I just read a post by Daniel Coyle, bestselling author of The Talent Code. Coyle’s post is titled, “The Most Important Four Words a Leader Can Say“, and suggests that those four words are “‘I screwed that up.’

Those words are actually the words of Dave Cooper, the SEALs master chief who trained the team that captured Osama bin Laden. Cooper constantly went out of his way to show his fallibility to his team, to admit error.

Coyle also shares an exchange he had with Ed Catmull, president and co-founder of Pixar. The first time they met Catmull showed Coyle around Pixar’s relatively new studio building, named Brooklyn. As they walked, Coyle made an offhand remark — something like, “Wow, this building is amazing.” Catmull then stopped and said, “In fact, this building was a mistake.” Catmull then went on to note the many design flaws in the building that came to the Pixar design too late to change.

According to Coyle “… strong culture can only happen when its members feel safe enough to tell each other the truth. That starts with moments when the leaders show their fallibility. It’s called a vulnerability loop . . . Person No. 1 [is] vulnerable, and admits a mistake or a shortcoming. This allows Person No. 2 to do the same, creating high-candor exchanges that drive performance and build trust. Vulnerability loops determine whether a group is going to be about merely appearing strong, or about actually facing hard truths and learning together.

I couldn’t agree more about the importance of leaders showing their fallibility, their willingness to admit they were wrong, and their willingness to take responsibility for their mistakes.

I also believe that a key part of this process is apologizing, so I decided to see if there has been anything written about the benefits of apologizing. A quick Google search, as you might have guessed, returned millions of responses. Here are some of the thing I learned:

An honest and sincere apology has the potential to restore dignity and diminish fear of retaliation or even desire for vengeance on the receiving end. On the giving end it can be a powerful tool to reconcile a working relationship and to initiate the restoration of trust. Accordingly, an apology can show strength of character, demonstrate emotional competence and reaffirm that both parties share values in their relationship they want to commit to. (The Power of Apologies)

Scientific studies are validating the health-promoting benefits that can result from apologizing. One study showed that showed that subjects displayed faster blood pressure recovery when they received a genuine apology.  And when giving an apology, remorse is a highly effective teacher because it points us in the direction of positive, internal change and personal growth. (The Power of I’m Sorry)

Deborah Tannen, a best-selling author and sociolinguist at Georgetown University writes, “APOLOGIES are powerful. They resolve conflicts without violence, repair schisms between nations, allow governments to acknowledge the suffering of their citizens, and restore equilibrium to personal relationships.” (Apologizing—A Key to Making Peace)

So there is a lot to be said for apologizing, whether it is in a personal relationship, at work, or in politics. There are benefits to both the receiver and the sender, a win-win.

There is also a good deal written about the importance of the sincerity of the apology, but that will have to wait for another blog post.

I don’t want to have to apologize for making my posts too long; there’s value in getting your point across in as few words as possible.

In fact, I could cut Daniel Coyle’s suggestion concerning the most important four words a leader can say in half, by simply using the phrase “I’m sorry.”

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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