Apologies done right are a sign of strength.
What an powerful book so far! Harriet Lerner really gets to the heart of making, or breaking, an apology right from page one in Why won't you apologize?. I found chapters two and three particularly interesting when read through the lens of leadership. I've been both the apologizer and the recipient of apologies in my career and I've certainly experienced all types.
"I'm sorry but you're going to have to work this weekend...," "I'm sorry but if it had done right the first time...," "I'm sorry if you thought what I said was harsh...," and so many more are examples I've experienced over the years. Those probably resonate with many of you as either apologies you have received or as apologies you have heard yourself give to others. At first glance, these may seem acceptable but think about how the moment felt after hearing, or saying, phrases like these. Was there still tension? Did you find yourself defensively uttering curses under your breath? Did you doubt your words after using one of these?
Apologizes framed by an If, But, or other similar phrase feel empty because they lack the weight of sincerity. This "sneaky little add-on...almost always signals an excuse or cancels out the original message" page 14. I have most often received apologies stated like this when the apologizer did not want to convey the root cause of some unfortunate situation or when the apologizer is trying to pass the buck to someone else. "An apology isn't the only chance you ever get to address the underlying issue. The apology is the chance you get to establish the ground for future communication. This is an important and often overlooked distinction" page 15. Rather than putting But in the middle of informing people of some unexpected situation try using something similar to this instead: "I'm sorry we're going to have to work this weekend. We were unable to address these projects during the week and they need to be complete by Monday. I will be here with you every step of the way and, in the future, we are going to redouble our efforts on project completion monitoring so we avoid these situations." That apology is sincere, builds relationships, and gives a way ahead! It lays the foundation for readdressing the situation, after the extra work, with praise and a progress report. It does not close the door or leave tension hanging in the air and it informs them that you will be right there with them.
Careful not to ruin it with an If. This tiny word can turn a sincere apology into a condescending encounter especially if it is connected to someone's reaction to a situation. If is even more empty when combined with But into one, lumpy insincere apology like "I'm sorry if you took what I said to be too harsh but I think that's an overreaction given the situation." Ouch, talk about instant retreat into defensive land. That apology does not end well for anyone involved and certainly does not end in productivity. Most importantly, apologies like that do not address the elephant in the room...the person apologizing is responsible for some portion of the wrong doing and If/But negate it. "A good apology includes the words 'I'm sorry' without 'ifs,' 'buts,' or any manner of undoing, obfuscations, and the like. [It's easy] to slip into language that distances us from responsibility and that muddles exactly what we are apologizing for" page 33. As leaders, we must get past our objectionable views of apologies and develop an approach towards them that builds relationships rather than creates a divide.
You may be thinking right about now "Objectionable! Strong word Sarah. I don't know if I'd take it that far." Bear with me and take a closer look at chapter five. Here Lerner address perfectionists. I was initially intrigued by this title because I considered myself a perfectionist. I have since rejected that stance solely because of the light she casts on that attitude here. She says that perfectionists may "adopt an attitude of terminal seriousness about [their] mistakes - or [they] equate mistakes with being unworthy, lesser, or bad - [making it] more difficult to admit error and apologize for being wrong" page 60. Whoa! That is a pretty intense statement and I unwittingly caught myself nodding in agreement. I've unfortunately known people who view admitting they were wrong to their followers as weakness, a softness, or a failure of leadership. I can attest to the absolute opposite.
Issuing a sincere, transparent apology to followers for a mistake is an unparalleled show of strength and respect. I have been thanked on several occasions for being boldly open with colleges, followers, and superiors. Apologizing in an authentic way as a leader allows you to model an expectation, and set of values, to your followers that reinforces the trusting relationship you have been building. "It models a stronger approach to the world that reflects a concern for fairness" page 96. Fairness is a value that great leaders strive for. Without fairness, trust is hard to come by so take any opportunity to reinforce it. Those of you who have served have undoubtedly heard the term "no room for failure" or "failure isn't an option." In some cases, yes the stakes are that high but they are not that high all of the time. Mistakes will be made and when they are made the strongest among us apologize for their portion of the responsibility.
What was the frame of the last apology you received? How about the last one you gave? What about one you still owe but are avoiding because you have a perfectionist view of apology? You are certainly not alone in "needs improvement land." I think I can safely say, with no scientific research to back it up, that the majority of us need work on our skills when it comes to apologies. Hopefully this book is helping you see the value of authentic apologies. Look back over some passages from the lens of leadership and see how your interpretation changes from your initial read. We'll pick it back up at chapter eight on August 30th.