Do You Know How to Apologize?

Accountability Authenticity


Dr. Aaron Lazare, author of the book On Apology underscores the importance of genuinely apologizing as an important human act, allowing for those that are wrong to repent and for those that have been wronged to forgive. Management and leadership guru Tom Peters talks about sincerely saying “sorry” as one of top leaders’ most important attributes. But do we really know and understand this act of contrition or are some of us inclined to throw out the “S” word with a hope that we can make the issue go away. The data says that platitudes and “non–apology apologies” are worse than no apology at all.  For example, one poll shows that only 54% of respondents felt that Tiger Woods apology was sincere. 

Lisa Belkin wrote a great NYT Magazine article entitled Why Is It So Hard to Apologize Well.  She refers to research by Jennifer Robbennolt, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Illinois.

“Dr. Robbennolt presented test subjects with a hypothetical situation — one in which a cyclist injures a pedestrian. She then attributed one of three statements to the cyclist and asked the subjects whether the injured party should accept a proffered settlement. When a full apology was offered (“I am so sorry that you were hurt. The accident was all my fault, I was going too fast and not watching where I was going”), 73 percent of the respondents said the pedestrian should be willing to accept the settlement. When no apology was offered, 52 percent said the pedestrian should settle. And when only a partial apology was offered (“I am so sorry that you were hurt, and I really hope that you feel better soon”), 35 percent opted for a settlement.”

 Do you think Tony Hayward, the soon to be ex-CEO of BP was sincere in his apology? 

So here are the essential self-accountable guidelines for apologizing at work (or anywhere):
1.   Be honest enough to recognize when we screwed up and admit it.
2.   Sincerely express our regret regarding our behavior and consequences.
3.   Take full responsibility for our behavior/actions (even when we think there are extenuating circumstances).
4.   State the learning and plan to act differently; outline how to prevent it from occurring again.
5.   Ask for forgiveness.

I like the way Belkin concludes her article: when an apology fails, two things are lost — the victims are not asked for forgiveness, nor are they given a chance to grant it. Being asked to forgive restores dignity to the injured. Granting forgiveness is a step toward moving on. A botched apology not only taints the act of apology but the ability to accept an apology as well. And that is unforgivable.

Let’s be self accountable …apologize when you screw up …do it the right way and go forward.

with Character,