Hard to Say I’m Sorry

I cannot remember the last time I heard a business leader say, “I’m sorry.”

This is not because there’s a shortage of opportunities to apologize.

In fact, most of us are really good at creating these opportunities. They may be ‘minor’ infractions, such as being late to a meeting or not responding to someone when we said we would. Or they may be bigger offenses, like making a mean comment or doing something deceptive. I can think of three times in the last week alone where I needed to say I’m sorry. (True confessions: I apologized in two of those situations, and I didn’t/should have in the third situation.)

So why don’t we say, “I’m sorry” in the workplace?

For the same reasons we avoid apologizing outside of work: we fear it will make us look bad, and we don’t like admitting we messed up.
The problem is that the cost of NOT owning up to mistakes and NOT apologizing can be even more costly:Sometimes the stakes in apologizing are high not only for us, but, also, for our organization.  Top business leaders understandably fear that apologizing and admitting fault might mean big financial cost for them and their company.

  1. You chip away your personal integrity. Apologizing is simply the right thing to do. We’re all tempted to rationalize that our mistake or offense wasn’t that bad or wasn’t our fault. Or we tend to blame someone else. But there is something powerfully freeing about taking responsibility for our mistakes, apologizing and asking forgiveness where needed. Not apologizing costs you a clear conscience.
  2. You don’t keep it real. If you mess up and don’t admit it or make amends, people see this; their trust in you takes a hit when you are not genuine.
  3. You damage trust. And if you damage trust with those you care about – loved ones, colleagues, customers – you lose intimacy, effectiveness, loyalty and business over time.
  4. You throw a wet blanket on innovation and openness. If people are not apologizing, then they are likely trying very hard not to make mistakes, too. And they are striving to cover up the mistakes they do make. When leaders behave this way, they set the tone for a culture that hinders creativity, smart risk-taking, trial and error, and collaboration – things that are necessary for growth and nimbleness.

Ultimately, saying “I’m sorry” is not only good for me personally and my relationships – it’s good for business.

Do you have any outstanding Apologies Payable? Excuse me while I go settle up with the person impacted in situation #3 that I mentioned above.

Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. You can reach him at jbaker@www.people-results.com or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.