The Art of Apologising: How to Get it Right When You Get it Wrong

Developing Yourself

3rd November 2021

How many times have you had to apologise this past year and a half? Or rather…how many times have you felt someone else ought to?

A misguided sense of anonymity via remote working, mismatched experiences and unprecedented uncertainty has led to a rise in spikiness. Defensiveness. During the pandemic many became accustomed to communicating in ways not previously accepted; Inhibitions were muted, office gossip took on a new form, and differing perspectives got lost in digital translation. 

Now with the return to the office for many underway to some extent,  following close behind the sigh of relief at the social interaction is the realisation that relationships have changed, maybe siloes have been solidified and individuals have new limits. Leaders being the change they want to see in others has never been so relevant.

Companies with compromised leadership credibility will recover slower and achieve lower. The stakes are high, and nothing kills a rapport of trust and respect dead more quickly than an insincere, or non-existent, apology. 

Luckily, the right kind of apology can diffuse even the stickiest of situations, creating an opportunity for trust to flourish and leave a positive impression that outlasts the memories of what went wrong. This is an essential skill for leaders who must learn to go first now more than ever…but unsurprisingly, it’s not easy. 

Beware an overdrawn Emotional Bank Account

First off, quality apologies matter because people don’t forget. They quantify, carry, count and tally. We don’t like to get caught on the back foot. As such, the quality of our interactions translates directly into transactions in and out of  what we at FranklinCovey call our emotional bank accounts. 

When we make deposits, we are building trust.  When we disappoint, mishandle a situation, or behave in a way lacking integrity, we are depleting trust and making a withdrawal from that account. 

When the balance becomes low- or even overdrawn- the relationship may be at breaking point and emotional compensation needs to be made promptly and sincerely. 

An artful apologiser is someone who is self-aware and compassionate enough to intentionally monitor their EBA, and understand when a deposit needs to be made, and what type, to remedy the relationship. Everyone has unique needs, standards and sensitivities. The high-trust behaviour that constitutes a sufficient deposit to one person, may not to another. 

Like our actions, not all apologies are created equal

Nothing screams insincerity like a quick placation that skips over the feedback straight to the “sorry”, or an apology so over-egged that it becomes self-indulgent and manipulative.  

For leaders, a failure to right wrongs in an unconditional, non judgemental, timely and plain-talking manner can incur trust taxes amongst their team that can be difficult to recoup. Team members will eventually begin to side-step you, be slowed down by second-guessing or disengage from what once excited them. 

“Unexpressed feelings never die. They are buried alive and come back later in uglier ways.”- Stephen R. Covey

To repair damage you need to show you genuinely care, and want to understand their frame of reference. If employees see their boss own a badly handled moment in a meeting, recognise a broken commitment, hear their grievance and commit to a positive action, they’ll feel empowered and valued– what is there to argue with? 

In turn, these employees will follow suit in the way they themselves behave.

But what if you don’t even believe you’re in the wrong?

Let’s be real. Leaders are people, and it is a very human gut-reaction to excuse, rationalise, minimise and defend ourselves in a situation where we feel confronted or misunderstood. Especially during times of crisis. What ultimately determines our level of maturity however, is how fleeting we allow those feelings to be, whether or not we voice them, and how we act as a result.  Whether we think just we’re important, or all parties are important.

It’s an unrealistic expectation that nothing will ever go wrong, that you will never let someone down, or that you will never offend someone. It’s also unrealistic to expect that intent always equals impact. 

We find that this observation by Dr Stephen R. Covey and Stephen M.R Covey, is often a lightbulb moment:

We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour

Essentially, we typically hold ourselves in much higher esteem than we do everyone else- an awkward admittance but true nonetheless. Subconsciously or not, we’re more likely to give ourselves a break because we know our heart is in the right place, that what they think is not what we meant, that we work really hard…whereas we can’t be sure of all of that when it comes to our colleagues, can we?

This problematic mindset is so pervasive because it is so natural, and indiscriminate across hierarchies. In fact, FranklinCovey data on The 4 Cores of Credibility reveals that on average, people give themselves a score of 94% for integrity and 92% for intent, but everyone else 63% and 60% respectively. 

The next time you find yourself at odds with a colleague or frustrated with a direct report, ask yourself: is it likely you have 30% more integrity than them, or do you need to suspend judgment

The glaring gap in perception here creates the perfect conditions for working at cross purposes.  High-performing teams are high-trust teams who are able to see their actions through the eyes of others, and hold each other accountable in a respectful way. 

Empathy is everything 

The importance of empathy in the professional world is not news, but living up to it it is still elusive and inconsistent for many. The recent State of Workplace Empathy study makes for some interesting reading. 

Whilst on the one hand 72% of surveyed employees rated both their organisation and CEO as empathetic in 2021, key drivers of empathy in the workplace- HR Professionals and CEOs- were less confident:

  • While two-thirds of HR professionals believe empathy can be learned, that reflects a 10-point drop from last year. 
  •  68% of CEOs say they fear they will be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace, up 31 points from last year. 
  • 7 in 10 CEOs say it’s hard for them to consistently demonstrate empathy in their working life, a 29-point increase from the prior year.

The messy events of the past 18 months have put us all under immense pressure, and perhaps as a result many have realised just how difficult consistently behaving empathetically is. Not only does it require disarming humility, it also takes time and emotional energy, two very stretched resources.

We have all had to dig deep. Bearing in mind the narrative of resilience we have all become familiar with, the pressure on scrutinised roles to lead decisively, communicate clearly and show strength on the behalf of everyone else has reinforced the traditionally-held message that assertiveness is the ideal opposite of weakness. 

Whereas what is truly commanding is the balance of such courage with consideration; the willingness to both assume good intent and then proactively seek to understand the perspective of others. This also, takes a different type of courage.

Anytime we think the problem is “out there,” that thought is the problem.- Stephen R. Covey

Leaning into the vulnerability that listening requires isn’t easy when we’ve already been humbled by a historic pandemic. Humbling ourselves further by prioritising what others think and feel, however ‘trivial’ (there’s no such thing) and especially as a leader, might present as an uncomfortable loss of control at a uniquely stressful time, but the effort pays dividends.  

 Is this something you see leaders in your organisations struggling with? Download our guide to learn how to listen like a leader with 9 tips to drive powerful conversations.  

Remember, to err is human

It’s a fact of life that no person, product, relationship or business is infallible. Mistakes are human nature. Mistakes are how we learn. 

From the day we are born, we rely on various forms of feedback to learn about ourselves and the world around us. If we approach an edge and don’t stop, whoops, we topple over it. Before long, we learn how to stop and climb down safely.

We learn that not all food tastes the same, and that broccoli is definitely a mistake not to be repeated. Then, we eventually learn the hard way that if we hurt people, and then we don’t show we care about what we did, we risk damaging that relationship.

Eventually, we’re measured by the lengths we go to to prevent that from happening again. No score is perfect, but continuous improvement can set us apart. 

Encouraging an ethos of ownership and artful, sincere apologising in your business is part of building a culture of trust that propels performance and people forward; one that acknowledges the human condition, allows for authenticity, and rewards integrity.

More often than not we find ourselves in situations where acknowledgement and restitution of some kind is required from both sides- mistakes rarely happen in a vacuum- but leaders must go first. If let slip at the top, the ripple effect broken trust and communication can have on team morale may prove difficult to reign back in. 

To help leaders in your organisation develop the critical skills of trust and credibility, share our interactive tool, 7 Ways to Build Trust Between You and Your Team—A Toolkit for Leaders at All Levels.