I was interviewed by Leah Fessler of Chief Magazine recently about how to apologize. Chief is an organization of elite C-Suite women, so my advice in the article was tailored to that audience. I think that the topic is germane to everyone, so I’m revisiting it in hopes of making apologies both more common and more effective.
The Formula for a Good Apology
There is an easy formula for a good apology. An effective apology, one that increases trust, includes vulnerability and accountability.
Ta = 𝒗 + ⍺
(Where Trust after the apology (Ta) is equal to vulnerability (𝒗) plus accountability (⍺).
Ok, sure, I totally made that up. It has zero evidence or validity, but I think it’s helpful.
The vulnerable part of an apology is the part where you admit that you messed up, that your mistake has consequences, and that you feel genuine remorse for your actions. It might look like, “I’m sorry that I did most of the talking in our presentation today. I realize now that it marginalized your contribution and wasted a chance for you to get exposure to the leadership team. I know those opportunities are few and far between. I apologize.”
As much as possible, remove judgment from your apology. Describe your behavior as objectively as possible. Saying, “I was rude,” or “I rushed” is making a judgment, and while it’s not usually a huge problem to judge yourself critically, your apology will have a bigger impact if you separate out what you did from the impact it had. Stick with “I interrupted you while you were talking,” or “I asked you to give your answer in the meeting instead of giving you time to think about it.”
The accountability part of an apology is the part where you take ownership for doing something to fix things and to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen again. A good accountability statement could be, “I’m going to speak with the leaders and let them know that these were your ideas. I’m going to recommend that you present them in the follow-up session.”
An apology that balances vulnerability and accountability enhances your connection, instills confidence, and ultimately contributes to stronger trust.
Now imagine an apology that’s missing one or the other of these elements. An apology without vulnerability has a plan, but no emotion or regret. It comes off as callous and robotic. Conversely, if you overemphasize vulnerability without accountability, dragging on about how terrible you feel without saying what you’re going to do differently next time, people will lose confidence in you. Either way, your integrity takes a hit, and once it’s gone, it’s exceptionally difficult to earn back.
Come to think of it, that might suggest the completely made-up formula that isn’t actually valid should be vulnerability times accountability, so trust goes to zero when either factor is absent.
Ta = 𝒗⍺
Crappy apologies can even make things worse than no apology at all. Think of that apology you were forced by your mom to make to your sibling; the one you made with a truly disdainful tone and the face to match.
The words, “I’m sorry” have no magic powers. As we know from many terrible apologies from high profile celebrities or politicians, “I’m sorry” is often more likely to mean, sorry I got caught.
Other bad apologies include…
- Sorry you reacted that way. You know this one right. “I’m sorry you were offended,” or “I’m sorry you got upset.” If you’re going to make this kind of non-apology, save your breath. You’ll be better off not apologizing than adding insult to injury with an apology that blames the victim.
- Sorry, but it wasn’t my fault. Yikes. You’re saying sorry, but as fast as the words get out of your mouth, you’re spreading the blame to someone else. “I’m sorry but purchasing didn’t approve the requisition in time.” Now that I’m thinking about it, any apology with the word, “but” in it is dead on arrival.
- Sorry, but no one could have done better. You hint at remorse, but find a way to suggest that no one, in the history of the world, ever could have done better than you did in the ill-fated situation. “I’m sorry, it was just not possible to deliver that big of a report in that little time.” Apologies are not intended to protect your ego; they’re meant to keep it in check.
- Sorry. There, you said it, “sorry,” full stop. Ummmm, sorry for what? If you don’t acknowledge the behavior you’re sorry for, how is anyone supposed to be confident that the same thing won’t happen again? This is not a time to be vague. Make it clear you know exactly what you have to be sorry about.
- Sorry I did that. Your apology is strong on describing the crimes and weak on assessing the impact. “Sorry that I forwarded your email to the boss,” is a good start, but you aren’t done until you say, “I didn’t know if you wanted her to see that and I probably put you in an awkward position.” Good apologies don’t describe victimless crimes.
When you put vulnerability and accountability together, you send a strong message that you don’t always get it right the first time, but you are resilient, and you do consider others, take your lumps, and learn and grow. Demonstrate those qualities time after time and you’ll earn both the trust and confidence of your colleagues without the need to be perfect.