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When Sorry Won’t Cut It: The Anatomy of an Apology

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You don’t have to be a sports fan to know that the National Football League (NFL) is in hot water. Due to their mishandlings of recent player disciplinary issues, many are calling for the resignations of league and team officials.

Some of these leaders have apologized for their mistakes, but are now receiving criticism due to doubts about the truthfulness and sincerity of their statements.

Since the facts surrounding these cases are still being investigated, I am not comfortable criticizing, nor defending their actions. But this is a good opportunity to explore how leaders should apologize when dealing with similar problems. Apologizing is usually the first brave step toward correcting mistakes. So why have these apologies been so ineffective?

To answer this question, let’s explore the five key elements of an effective apology:

1. Be Proactive

After arriving at a recent conference, I realized I forgot to bring some items for my company’s presentation. Although it was tempting to remain silent and hope no one noticed the missing items, I knew I needed to notify someone. I called my boss and admitted my mistake. Fortunately, he had not yet left town, so he stopped by the office to pick up the items before he left. While I hated having my boss go out of his way to fix my mistake, admitting my error early allowed us time to find a solution.

If your mistake negatively impacts others, begin exploring solutions to fix the problem immediately.

2. Articulate the Issue

Simply saying “sorry” and moving on implies that you don’t think your mistake was a big deal and neither should they. One word apologies don’t cut it.

Articulate that you understand what you did, where you went wrong, and how your actions caused a problem for others. This shows that you understand and empathize with the person(s) you wronged, which is essential to regaining their trust.

The Anatomy of An Apology Photo3. Take Responsibility

Take ownership of your actions, the problems they caused and express what you should have done differently. While you may be asked to explain why you made the mistake, avoid making excuses that defend your actions.

Shifting the blame toward others in any way implies that you don’t sincerely believe you are at fault, which then leads people to wonder if you’re being genuine.

4. Be Authentic

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a half-hearted apology? It’s worse than no apology at all. It may have sounded like “I’m sorry you felt like I was being rude when I said your idea was stupid.”

When you apologize for the way someone else feels, you direct the blame away from your actions and imply that they simply overreacted. A better, more sincere wording might be “I apologize for calling your idea stupid. I was frustrated about something else, and I took that frustration out on you. It was rude, and I regret saying it. I actually value your creativity, and I hope you will continue to share your ideas in future meetings.”

Make sure you express sincere regret for your mistake. Using a patronizing or condescending tone will only make matters worse.

5. Commit To Change

Even the most heartfelt apology loses value if the offender continuously repeats the mistake. One of the most crucial elements of an effective apology is outlining the changes you are making, in order to prevent the same mistake from happening again.

Mistakes are inevitable in life. It’s how you respond to those mistakes that will shape how others perceive you. Ethical leaders maintain a desire to get it right and are willing to put forth the extra work to fix things.

I encourage you to monitor the responses of the NFL teams and league officials over the next few weeks. Examine what they say and what they don’t say in their responses. How their reactions shape up against these five key elements will largely shape the public’s level of trust and respect for their organizations.

Your apologies may not make front page news like the NFL statements, but your response to these types of issues will be remembered by your peers and coworkers for years to come. Taking ownership of your mistakes, expressing regret over your actions, and explaining why this mistake will not occur again requires a good deal of courage. But, there’s no better way to rebuild trust and respect with your team.

Always remember, Leadership is a Lifestyle.

– Ryan W. Hirsch
Program Manager, NASBA Center for the Public Trust