One of his coworkers, let's call this guy Jim, had taken an incorrect position on a project and blamed the wrong team for a failure. Everyone in the
One of his coworkers, let’s call this guy Jim, had taken an incorrect position on a project and blamed the wrong team for a failure. Everyone in the room could see that Jim screwed up, including Jim, but he wouldn’t admit it.
Had Jim backtracked, acknowledged the shortcoming, and apologized, the project might have continued smoothly. But Jim didn’t trust his team enough to accept responsibility and repair the rapport.
That made my colleague hesitant to work on projects with him in the future. In fact, my colleague went out of his way, probably wasting valuable time, to avoid interacting with Jim at all.
I asked how things might have been different if Jim had apologized. “I would have supported his project and committed to his success,” my colleague replied.
With a well-formed apology, even a damaged relationship can move forward with new stability and confidence.
Be brave enough to be vulnerable.
The power of an apology requires you to be vulnerable, not proud or fearful. Apologizing is an act of empathy–acknowledging the harm, pain, indignation, or anger you may have caused, and honoring that hurt. Many cultures have rituals around apology and contrition, focused on chastening wrongdoing, restoring empathy, and inviting forgiveness.
Well-meaning advisors have probably implored you to stop apologizing at work, cautioning you against conversational affectations like, “I apologize if I’m overlooking something here,” or “I’m sorry if I’m catching you at a bad time.” Their argument is that those kinds of statements may damage your credibility rather than restoring it.
Those advisors are half-right. Genuine apologies do matter. Those kinds of statements aren’t genuine apologies–as they’re often followed by “but…” They may, in fact, devalue the ritual of responsibility and empathy I’m recommending.
Last week, I was in the middle of a transaction when my internet service failed. No warning, no connection, lots of frustration.
My provider sent an email to all its customers, taking responsibility for the problem and promising to minimize future disruptions. Once the signal was restored and the apology received, I forgot my annoyance and moved on. It was prompt, transparent, and–most importantly–sincere.
Companies are sometimes caught concealing shortcomings or trying to cover up mistakes. Apologizing is hard: You don’t want to appear weak, or stupid, or face uncomfortable consequences. Similarly, lots of people instinctively blame, deny, or sidestep responsibility with phrases like, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
The short-term avoidance of pain makes ignoring or covering up a mistake feel rational. In the long term, people don’t want to work with or rely on anyone who can’t admit when they’re at fault. I still don’t buy gas at Exxon or BP stations, years after their respective oil spills, because their apologies weren’t enough to get me back on board.
Great apologies by brands can save them from serious reputation damage, and the truest apologies sound human.
In 2016, Adidas had to apologize publicly after an email campaign congratulated runners for “surviving the Boston Marathon,” just three years after a bombing near the finish line had killed three racers and injured more than 200. The company’s CEO sent an effective follow-up statement: “We are incredibly sorry. Clearly, there was no thought given to the insensitive email subject line we sent Tuesday.”
In other words, the brand leader took responsibility, expressed remorse, and acknowledged the thoughtlessness of the misstep.
The bravest apology may be the rarest: an apology for something no one (yet) knows you did wrong. Owning up to a deniable mistake takes a particular kind of moral courage. Such an apology shows you’ve been reflecting on your actions with objectivity and humility.
“To err is human,” so it’s a part of all our relationships and businesses, too. Every company will eventually experience an outage, a failure, or a product malfunction. If you haven’t made a significant mistake in the last five years, you’re probably not taking enough risks.
You can’t move your business forward while spending all your energy avoiding mistakes. Occasionally, hopefully infrequently, you’ll screw up.
When that happens, a well-structured and sincere apology has the power to bring renewed empathy, emotional healing, and relationship repair for all involved.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.
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