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Strategic Apologies

79

October 2010

Apologies are land mines. Too many can diminish your credibility. Too few can damage your relationships. This episode dissects four kinds of apologies and the uses for each.

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79

October 2010

Strategic Apologies

Tom Henschel

Resisting “I’m sorry”

Lissa is a very creative marketing person. Her organization gave her a coach after identifying her as “high potential.” Halfway through our engagement, she began supporting a new product and almost immediately clashed with Donald, the sales person. During a phone conversation they’d had, he’d called her “lazy,” “inept” and “arrogant,” none of which I thought she was.

“Sounds like you really struck a nerve with him,” I observed. “What happened to make him call you all those names?”

“Oh, he’s a control freak,” she snorted. “We’re making a presentation to the client in ten days and he wanted my slides last Friday.” She rolled her eyes. “As if!”

Lissa’s creative process gets a boost from starting late; she loves the rush of working against a deadline. Now here was Donald asking for her material two weeks ahead of time. It sounded as though her style and Donald’s were badly mismatched.

As we discussed managing her relationship with Donald, I encouraged her to talk with him about the difference in their styles. “I’ll bet he’s stressing about these slides,” I told her. “It would be nice if you could tell him you’re sorry for the gap in your styles.”

“Sorry?” she gasped. “What do I have to be sorry about? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“You wouldn’t be apologizing for anything you did. You’d be acknowledging that he’s having a bad time and the easiest words to use are, ‘I’m sorry’.”

Two apologies that damage relationships

Lissa’s resistance to my suggestion was so strong, we ended up discussing apologies as a strategic communication style. I explained that I identify four kinds of apologies—two that enhance relationships and two that diminish them.

The first apology that diminishes relationships is exemplified by a client named Kim. When I met her, the first thing she said to me was, “I’m sorry I’m late.” That felt appropriate; she was late.

As we interacted more, she had more and more things to apologize for—promises unkept or performance that was sub-standard. I understood why her boss said, “She’s a nice woman but she’s not very effective.”

The only good news was that Kim knew most of the ways she was failing, so she apologized. Constantly.

Continuous apologies for poor performance, while appropriate, diminish relationships. Actually, it’s not the apologizing that diminishes the relationship; it’s the behavior that creates the need to constantly apologize that diminishes relationships.

Chet, a young man who struggled with poor self-esteem, is a good example of the second apology that diminishes relationships. Unlike Kim, who apologized for her very real failings, Chet apologized for things that weren’t in his control at all: a delay I’d encountered at security, his boss’s slow response to my email, traffic during my commute. Chet’s apologies were rampant and reflexive; he was barely aware of how many times a day he said the words, “I’m sorry.”

Chet was apologizing for events that were beyond his control as if he could control them. That is simply unrealistic. Apologizing continually and unconsciously for events beyond your control diminishes relationships because it indicates a tenuous grasp on reality

Two apologies that enhance relationships

On the other hand, I was encouraging Lissa to apologize for something that actually was in her control—and that was what made her uncomfortable!

“Look,” she said, still resisting, “I have no problem saying ‘I’m sorry’ when I hear something like someone’s mother has died. Saying ‘sorry’ to that is fine because I had nothing to do with it. But I’m not going to tell Donald I’m sorry he’s upset when I’m the person who’s upsetting him!”

“But it’s not really you who’s upsetting him,” I replied. “Donald’s upset because he’s not getting what he wants—because his preferences are different from yours. I think it’s okay to apologize when the choices you make disappoint others. If we were to string it out, it would sound like this: ‘I’m sorry I can’t give you what you want in this instance. I understand you want the slides earlier than I’m going to get them to you, but I won’t even begin working on them until this weekend. I’m sorry if this is upsetting for you, Donald.”

The first apology that enhances relationships is one that acknowledges the other person is upset without changing your choice. Live with the fact that you’ve upset someone. You don’t need to “fix” them or “make them happy.” What enhances the relationship is your ability to acknowledge that they’re upset. (For more on the ability to hold your boundaries, read “Don’t Take It Personally” and “Leadership & Self-Deception.”)

As she pondered whether she would be able to apologize in that way to Donald, she asked what the fourth apology was.

The fourth apology

Cary, a young CEO of an electronics company, is the poster child for the fourth apology. No one was more focused on the company’s numbers, but when it came to seeing his impact on people, Cary was blind. In his mind, all the effort he put into the business gave him license to behave as he wanted.

Consequently, he failed to give even the simplest of apologies. When he kept the executive team waiting more than thirty minutes, it never occurred to him to offer an apology. When he canceled a meeting with a department head whose team had worked through the weekend to prepare a report for him, no apology was offered. As I collected feedback about Cary, I heard a dozen more examples of his lack of awareness about his impact on others.

This fourth apology, the second that enhances relationships, is simply being personally responsible. When you goof, own it. When you inconvenience someone, acknowledge it. Say, “I’m sorry,” no matter how small or large the issue.

I often hear people express reluctance to admit a mistake; they’re concerned it will come back to haunt them. Corporations regularly act this way: they fear that apologizing will make them legally vulnerable, so they deny accountability

This ducking of responsibility, whether in corporations or individuals, is, quite frankly, unappealing. It certainly is not what we teach our children. Why do we think different rules apply to us as adults?

After more discussion, Lissa found a way to tell Donald she was sorry for the stress he experienced working with her without changing her style. And their relationship was better for it.

Apologies are tricky. The absence of them can damage a relationship, as can an over-abundance of them. Like so many communication skills, using apologies selectively, with awareness, is the way to achieve The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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