Good Apologies Build Good Will
Updated: Nov 16
“I err therefore I am.” - St. Augustine
The pace at which we work means we are going to make some mistakes. We don’t proof an email properly, we speak over each other in a meeting, we jump to conclusions, we don’t consider all the factors.
We are expected to provide a minimum viable product and get something in our customer’s hands quickly and then improve it with their critical input. Like it or not, some mistakes are going to happen.
In your organization, what happens when someone makes a mistake? Do they promptly admit when they are wrong and make amends?
Let’s face it: no one is immune from making a mistake. But, we can avoid making matters worse by taking appropriate action.
To be sure, mistakes vary in degree, and depending on the consequences, additional actions may be required, including consulting with a legal professional. But when we make an insensitive comment, send a message without having all the facts or consider how it will be received, or berate a subordinate (or colleague) publicly, we must promptly acknowledge our error and make amends. It’s time for a good apology. It can go a long way to build trust and good will.
Bad v. Good Apology
When we hear an apology, we know if it’s bad or good. But offering an apology is a different experience.
A bad apology justifies or explains away our error. It paints a picture of why we did what we did or why we should be forgiven. It might sound like: "I didn't mean to ___, rather, I was only attempting to___”, or “This only happened because I thought ___, please understand where I'm coming from."
Of course, trying to explain our actions is natural. But a bad apology rationalizes our error.
A good apology has four elements:
1. Focuses on the other person(s) and how they have been affected by your mistake. It doesn’t assume you know how they feel or what they need, rather, it asks. When leaders truly listen—and do not argue—they open the door to making real amends.
2. Takes responsibility. It doesn’t distribute, dilute, or delegate responsibility. It acknowledges an error and remorse. A good apology sounds like: “I am sorry. I was wrong.”
3. Makes amends. After listening and understanding how other(s) were impacted, it addresses what can, is, and will be done to correct the mistake.
4. Builds trust. After reflection and identification of lessons learned, it communicates what you will do differently in the future.
When this topic comes up in my coaching conversations, we talk about the importance of reflection, without obsession.
Understand how you contributed to the mistake without getting hung up on “woulda, coulda, shoulda.” This type of thinking is not uncommon when the stakes are really high and we take on full responsibility for the error (rightfully or not). If this happens to you, a qualified coach can help you break the cycle of rumination and get back on track with productive self-reflection. A good apology can help you inspire your team and helps you establish your executive presence. I use the Stewart Leadership Executive Presence program to help my clients build awareness of how they are managing emotions during this process. They show up credible, capable, and confident even in the face of making mistakes.
Leaders without executive presence lose an important layer of influence and impact. Check out these 6 consequences of not having executive presence.