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Apology’s Sorry State

‘Why do so many people have such a hard time apologizing, especially when the act itself is such a powerful symbol of leadership and reconciliation?,’ writes Workforce Management editor John Hollon.

September 26, 2008
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Related Topics: Miscellaneous Legal Issues, Ethics
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When I was a kid, my dad frequently made a point of telling me that confession was good for the soul.

Although it’s easy to think he was passing on religious philosophy, I’ve come to understand over the years that Dad had something else in mind, and it’s this: Owning up to your missteps in life, acknowledging what you’ve done wrong, apologizing and—most important—attempting to set things right can be a powerful tool when dealing with other people. And nowhere is that more true than in the world of business and people management.

I was thinking of this recently when dealing with a Web site that was using content from Workforce Management without getting our permission to do so. When I pointed this out to the site’s operators, they stonewalled me and ignored me completely until I found another way to get their attention.

Even at that point, when they finally, grudgingly admitted their transgression, the "apology" I received was terribly shallow and totally insincere. I came away from the incident wondering how the company manages to keep any customers at all given such a ham-handed business philosophy. Who wants to deal with an organization that behaves like that?

The site also missed an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. People make mistakes, nobody’s perfect, and sometimes things happen that shouldn’t. I understand that completely. That’s why a timely, personal and sincere apology could have turned me around and made me feel really positive toward the organization. Instead, I was left with the strong impression that it was a shoddy operation with bad business practices—an organization that would do the right thing only if somebody forced it to.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I learned about the power of the apology earlier in my career when I was a new newspaper editor, working for an equally new publisher who was very passionate about her work. She was so passionate, in fact, that she would sometimes come into my office and yell at me while throwing a balled-up copy of that day’s newspaper at my head. She wasn’t happy about something and that was her way of letting me know.

Sounds terrible, right? Well, it was at the time, but to my publisher’s credit, she also always came back after losing her cool and, in what I thought was a remarkable show of humility, made a very heartfelt apology. She told me that she had been out of line and, although she had meant what she had said, she knew that hadn’t been the right way to say it.

As much as I hated her outbursts, I admired and respected her for coming back and admitting her transgression. To this day, I have tremendous empathy and respect for her because she showed me that a sincere and meaningful apology in a business setting can be a powerful tool to build stronger relationships.

In my career, however, such apologies by high-level executives are most definitely the exception rather than the rule. And this makes me wonder: Why do so many people have such a hard time apologizing, especially when the act itself is such a powerful symbol of leadership and reconciliation?

We tackled this question a few years ago in a Workforce Management story, "The Art of the Apology." As the story points out, there are many good reasons to use an apology as a business strategy, mainly because the right amount of contrition "has been shown to significantly reduce the cost of settling lawsuits, and may even convince unhappy customers, irked business partners and/or resentful ex-employees not to sue at all. Experts say that companies willing to admit mistakes may uncover and fix problems that otherwise might have continued to fester, and avoid the stress and lost productivity that come when workers focus on covering up mistakes and misdeeds rather than achieving business objectives."

All of that is true, but as I’ve found out, the most relevant reason for apologizing is that it builds a powerful workplace business culture. It helps people put slights and wrongs behind them before they grow into something much bigger. People can then better focus on building the business. They’ve put the emotional sideshow behind them, quickly and effectively.

In my ideal workplace, reconciliation and apology would be core corporate values that would be impressed upon every employee at every level, no matter what title or rank they might hold. Too idealistic? Maybe, but I would love to hear about companies that work according to these principles. My guess is that they would annually land at the top of the lists of great places to work.

Workforce Management, September 8, 2008, p. 42 -- Subscribe Now!

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