We all need to apologize from time to time. After a discussion with two of my children this weekend, one of whom was crying from a slap to the arm, it ended with one of them apologizing to the other. The jury is still out on if she meant it.
I’ve been thinking about how to apologize, especially as a leader. When my organization has done something that requires an apology, how should it be done? How about when I, personally, have been the one in the wrong? What are some principles that might guide my apology? Below you’ll find my thoughts on that, which I hope would guide any future apologies I might need to make. I think these have guided me in the past, although in certain cases I or others around me have missed a few of these in an apology. If so I apologize for my bad apologies. My bad. (FYI: This apology just now basically broke nearly all of the advice below.)
When it comes to apologizing like a leader…
Timing Counts (not just the content)
I obsess about the content–the specific reasons–for something like an apology. But as with many things, timing is everything. Thomas Hobbes said, “Hell is truth seen too late.” A leader that apologizes too late is just extending the “hell” the situation is causing for the organization [quote_left]“Hell is truth seen too late.” -Hobbes[/quote_left]that comes about through people reacting and making up their minds. It may seem like they are “making up their minds” too soon. But I need to remember that my organization, and I myself, may see the truth of the need for apology too late. I need to “catch up quick” to what others may have spent weeks, or months, even years, trying to convince me of. An apology needs to catch up for lost time. This question must be answered: “Why are you choosing to apologize now instead of earlier?”
Attitude Counts (not just the words)
The tone of an apology matters almost as much as the words, if not more. If you’ve ever seen a kid apologize after their parents told them to do so to their sibling you know what I mean. It can be torturous to hold back on on all the conflicting emotions that always come with an apology. But it must be earnestly offered with a contrite attitude. Any “fighting back” will not help the apology–and you might as well not do it in the first place. The little pot shots at your enemies will completely undermine the moment. Instead, my tone, delivery, and even posture as the apologizer are critical and will be instinctually analyzed to death by those who see it. This question must be answered: “How can we know how you truly feel about this?”
Submission Counts (not just the decision)
It is temping as a leader to “take it all on yourself” and in most ways this is true. Take responsibility on your back as much as you can, even if someone four chains down the flow-chart really is the one who screwed up. A good leader doesn’t point down when apologizing. [quote_right]”Who you are submitting to in the ongoing process is critical.”[/quote_right] But a good leader does point up when apologizing. Defer to the leaders over you. I may be the mouthpiece for the apology, speaking for myself and the organization, but it is helpful to point to the leaders over me that are holding me accountable in some specific ways. Clarifying who I am submitting to in the ongoing process is critical. This question must be answered: “Who is ultimately providing accountability for you going forward?”
Details Count (not just the big picture)
We want to protect people, and particularly the innocent, or the needlessly involved, when we apologize. For this reason, we often cleanse an apology of specific points of detail. The apology then ends up without much detail in it. Lawyers in particular advise such a thing. This becomes problematic, especially in the church. It is far too easy to open up the door for baseless speculation about what caused the apology in the church. People start to assume all kinds of unhelpful things. An apology can actually start to cause more harm in the Kingdom of God than the actual thing that you are apologizing for! Too many cooks in the kitchen on the apology can cause this problem as well–as everyone wants to control what is said and what isn’t. In the end you have to specify what actually happened that caused the apology, even if names are removed, the infractions, sins, or mistakes must be named. There’s no getting around it. This question must be answered: “What presenting problem actually made this apology necessary that you are sorry for?”
Effect Counts (not just intent)
While the organization and I might not have intended any harm from the actions, the effect of them warrants apology, not just the intent. It is important to sorta say this without saying it. [quote_left]It is important to sorta say this without saying it.[/quote_left] I need to be able to point out that there were very negative effects of what we did, and I am sorry for that effect. But it is not good for me to dwell on the point of unintended consequences. If I accidentally drove over your mailbox because I was looking at my cell phone when driving it doesn’t matter much to you that I didn’t do it on purpose. What I did was wrong, period. Same goes for the unintended effects of my organization’s actions that I am apologizing for (even if it happens to actually be that our CEO ran over someone’s mailbox). This question must be answered: “What specific unintended negative effects were caused by this, and do I apologize for those as well?”
Fame Counts (not just the impact)
Leaders of organizations have varying degrees of being known in the public eye. This matters when it comes to apologies. The more famous you are–the more you stand for something out of your control. It might be nice to try and “retreat to a private life” when controversy comes, or apologies are needed. But we cannot take advantage of all the benefits of being known without also taking our lumps publicly with the same level of audience when criticism arises. This is true whether it means you are a well-known pastor in a small community, so that people know who you are at the local High School game, or whether it is national notoriety, so that you get a slot of the Today Show for your next book. In the later case you might need to be willing to apologize on the Today Show–if you were willing to be a guest on that show for positive reasons, you might also for negative reasons–if only to take ownership of the symbolism of your fame. This question must be answered: “How have you taken into account the symbolic nature of this problem because of the public notoriety of you or the organization?”
Future Counts (not just the past)
An apology is mostly about past actions and a present grief for them. It was wrong. It was not the right thing to do. Bad things happened as a result. You feel sorry. You say so. But when it comes to an apology, people also want to know about the future. They want to know if things will be done differently because of this. When I was a kid and I needed to say sorry to my brother, my mom would then say, in a sort-of motherly sing-song chant, “And what does ‘I’m sorry’ mean?” and I was to respond with this refrain, “I was wrong, and I won’t do it again.” [quote_right]”I was wrong, and I won’t do it again.” [/quote_right] As a leader, I must be willing to outline how procedures, policies, or strategies have been changed as a result of this thing I’m apologizing for. That helps people understand that you’re not just apologizing to quell the bad feedback, but that we are actually adjusting our culture so that things like this deserve more attention and prevention. This question must be answered: “What are you going to do differently because of what you learned through this?”
Okay, that’s a start on what counts in apologizing like a leader.
What’s your take on other things that count when it comes to leaders apologizing?