Why is it so terrifying to apologize?
A strong leader knows the power of an apology. When a leader recognizes that something of value has been broken or lost, s/he has the power to mend it through the delivery of a good apology.
The decision to give an apology is rooted in the ability to separate behavior from the person that you are. It takes a strong sense of self to step back and recognize when something happened that shouldn’t have, even when you played a part in it.
Sometimes an apology requires you to allow a part of your ego to die. The reward is that once you let it die, you are stronger, with more integrity and a greater ability as a leader.
A good apology has 4 features:
1. Admit what you did wrong.
This is about behavior not the person that you are. A statement like ‘When I — I failed to recognize your true value” or “When I — I jeopardized what was really important here which is—— and I regret that.” It is an acknowledgement of what happened that shouldn’t have as opposed to an opportunity to highlight all that you did right or what other people did wrong that was even worse than what you did (defensiveness). It requires a clear recognition of what happened that shouldn’t have. “If I hurt you, I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it.
2. Repair the damage.
What action can be taken to bring the situation back to wholeness? Pay for the broken item, explain the situation to people who were affected, genuinely acknowledge what damage was done and take action to remedy it so it does not linger into the future.
3. Give reasonable assurance that it will not happen again.
Create new systems for safety checks, commit to a new course of action, or identify consequences that will be imposed to deter recurrence of the incident.
4. Ask what you can do to make it better.
Beyond the physical damage there is damage to the trust between the parties. Commit to hearing their concerns, or taking actions that will repair the feelings of the injured party. There is a responsibility on the part of the injured party to not extract such a heavy toll more damage is done and a cycle of victimization develops.
A crisis is the crucible in which a man, or a leader is measured and an apology is very powerful. During this moment integrity, and values become evident. It is an opportunity to rise to your better self, as James Burke did during the tragic Tylenol case in 1982 where the tampered seal of several bottles resulted in cyanide poisoning of seven people in the Chicago area. As CEO, Burke immediately established a task force to take on two clear missions: 1. protect our clients, in keeping with the corporate mission statement, and 2. save the brand.
They immediately warned people using all available media (admit what is wrong), they stopped all production of Tylenol locally and then recalled over $100,000,000 worth of product nationally until they were clear on how people were being killed (give reasonable assurance it won’t happen again) and designed a tamper-proof bottle within two months. Burke gave non-stop press conferences to show he was in charge and make himself available (ask what you can do to make it better). Even though Tylenol was not found to be negligent in any way, they offered counseling to the grieving families and compensation (repair the damage).
In this crisis Burke showed the integrity and the root values of Tylenol, namely its customers’ safety over making money. Burke took the bullet for what was happening to protect others and heal the relationship. He did not focus his effort on making sure Tylenol was not seen to be at fault.
I’ve used this apology format in numerous situations from squabbles between kids, my relationships, and professional intervention to restore relationships after cyber bullying incidents. It is really effective. The key is to ensure that the apology is recognized as coming from a position of strength of character, an embodiment of your inner Warrior King.
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