When and how should a manager say, ‘I’m sorry’?

by on January 30, 2012 · 4 Comments POSTED IN: HR Cafe
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“Never explain, never apologize.” It’s a dictum that may work for the commander of a military combat unit, or the dictator of a small, impoverished country.

But for most managers, it’s bad advice. There are times when you absolutely should apologize. Apologies don’t make you look weak — the fear of some managers – but can actually make you look even stronger, smarter and more credible in the eyes of most employees.

Apology time
So how do you know when it’s apology time? And what do you say? Bob Rosner, who blogs at Workplace911.org, advises an apology in situations like these:

  • You make a mistake in procedure or process that inconveniences others.
  • You set an unrealistic goal that team members can’t – and don’t – meet.
  • You lose your temper or resort to sarcasm about a subordinate.

Rosner also notes that it’s important to apologize as soon as you become aware of your mistake. Don’t wait for the offended party to complain. Exception: If legal issues might be involved, get advice from HR or company counsel before apologizing.

How to do it
What’s the best way to apologize?

First, make it unconditional. Don’t suggest the mistake was in another’s perception of what you did. Wrong: “I’m sorry if you took what I said as an insult.” Right: “What I said wasn’t kind or fair, and I’m sorry I said it.”

Second, issue the apology in the same forum in which you made the mistake. In other words, if you humiliated someone in front of her colleagues, apologize in front of them.

Third, resist the urge to pledge that you won’t make the mistake again. Sure, you’ll try not to, but we’re all human.

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4 Comments on This Post

  1. Michael Brisciana
    January 30, 2012 - 3:38 pm

    Stephen, 

    Excellent point.  A lot has been written in recent years about “authentic leaders.”  Authentic leaders apologize … and do it sincerely.  That’s one of the things that makes them authentic.

    Michael

  2. Michael Brisciana
    January 30, 2012 - 3:38 pm

    Stephen, 

    Excellent point.  A lot has been written in recent years about “authentic leaders.”  Authentic leaders apologize … and do it sincerely.  That’s one of the things that makes them authentic.

    Michael

  3. Tony
    January 31, 2012 - 3:25 pm

    I may have been blessed by ignorance from the truth, but the military I served in did not condone “never explain, never apologize.”  Dictatorial behavior was not just bad for unit morale, it was an impediment to successful operations.  There absolutely were individuals who went on “power trips” and made life bad for those around them, but they were few and eventually fell by the wayside.  There were times when instant obedience was essential, but that occurred in the context of a situation that all understood.  Military combat units come in all sizes and flavors, but I suspect that a unit considered the most elite at the moment (Seal Team Six) does not operate under the “Never explain, never apologize” dictum.  A group that efficient and effective is grounded at its core on mutual respect and trust, concepts that run counter to the dictum you connect to a military combat unit in your opening paragraph.  I certainly agree with article’s message though, with the slight change of, “For all managers, it’s bad advice.”

  4. Tony
    January 31, 2012 - 3:25 pm

    I may have been blessed by ignorance from the truth, but the military I served in did not condone “never explain, never apologize.”  Dictatorial behavior was not just bad for unit morale, it was an impediment to successful operations.  There absolutely were individuals who went on “power trips” and made life bad for those around them, but they were few and eventually fell by the wayside.  There were times when instant obedience was essential, but that occurred in the context of a situation that all understood.  Military combat units come in all sizes and flavors, but I suspect that a unit considered the most elite at the moment (Seal Team Six) does not operate under the “Never explain, never apologize” dictum.  A group that efficient and effective is grounded at its core on mutual respect and trust, concepts that run counter to the dictum you connect to a military combat unit in your opening paragraph.  I certainly agree with article’s message though, with the slight change of, “For all managers, it’s bad advice.”

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