Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Power of an Apology

Imagine this scene:
It’s Saturday morning, after a long work week and a big Friday deadline you hit the hay early with plans on sleeping in. The sun is peeking through the windows as you slowly wake up. You reach over to the nightstand and grab your phone and at first glance your stress levels jump. On your phone are missed calls, text messages and emails from your boss and other team members. You do not even have to check them before you know that something must have gone very wrong. After you read the first email, check the first voicemail, or text message you know, you screwed up. What do you do?

I don’t know if something like this has happened to you before, it certainly has happened to me. We all make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes have big, far-reaching consequences. We tried our best, thought we had all of our bases covered and then out of nowhere we get a surprise pie in the face. We have all had to work through these mistakes be they our fault or not. Minimizing damage and getting back on track are crucial to recovering from mistakes of any size. Often times this process can be de-railed by moving the focus towards blame rather than repair. Yet this trap can be avoided and recovery can begin much faster with one simple act.

An apology. I took this piece of advice from my father a long time ago. Say you’re sorry and start working on a solution. Do it immediately. Sounds easy, right? So why is this crucial and easy action avoided? I believe we avoid apologizing for two reasons.

Many of us have created an unsustainable image of ourselves as the perfect employee who never makes mistakes, especially big ones. We mistakenly tie this to integrity. Often times we can make the mistake of believing that are sole value to the organization we work for is this one thing. While consciousness and quality are key to a good work product trying to wave off responsibility for an error does much more damage to our integrity than simply owning up to the mistake. Yet we see it time and time again. We try and blame a supplier, upper management, or technology; anything but us. Nothing gives birth to a pink elephant in the conference room faster than when the person who everyone knows screwed up does everything but admit it.

It Really is not Your Fault
One of the hardest lessons I learned when I moved into a supervisory role is that if one of my team members make a mistake that affects the unit then as their supervisor it is my mistake. Playing hot potato with the blame does not solve the problem and usually annoys leadership. Always keep in mind that your boss is most likely going to have to take responsibility for the error with his or her boss.

In either case I would assert that a direct and immediate apology can go a long way towards moving beyond the blame game and getting down to fixing the problem. It also shows leadership and that you are more concerned about the organization than yourself.

What is a good apology?
A good apology is very simple statement.
“I am sorry that I ___________.”
That’s it. Notice what is missing from that statement. The words, “if”, “but”, “however”, or “you think that” and other similar statements are all words that turn a direct apology into a conditional statement. I would assert that a real apology never contains those words.
“I am sorry I missed the deadline.”
As opposed to:
“I am sorry I missed the deadline, however, it was due to circumstances beyond my control.”

“I am sorry that I lost that client.”
As opposed to:
“I am sorry if you feel like it is my actions that caused us to lose that client.”
Authentic apologies do not come with disclaimers. Also notice that there is no statement attempting to spread culpability.
“I am sorry that I sent out that report with grammatical errors.”
“I am sorry that report went out with errors. I had Cindy proof-read it, I guess I’ll have to get someone else next time.”
Once you have apologized offer a solution or steps to correct the issue, show that you’re engaged in correcting the problem even if you think your boss may hand it to someone else. There will be time to work out the why and wherefore later, after the fall-out has been dealt with.

So next time you or someone in your group makes a mistake give this a try. You might be surprised at the reaction of those you work with. I believe strongly that taking the blame right away allows the entire team to focus on a solution and move forward. It also speaks volumes about who you are as a person.

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