5 Ways to Apologize and Mean It

The author Louise Penny created an admirable leader in the character of Chief Inspector Gamache. For those who haven’t read her series about the inspector, Gamache embodies many traits that executives should emulate, including his four rules of wisdom encapsulated as sentences, which he shares will his colleagues as important to invoke:

5 Ways to Apologize and Mean It

  • I don’t know.
  • I need help.
  • I’m sorry.
  • I was wrong.

Saying sorry is hard. Humans are hard-wired to be correct and reluctant to be wrong. In business, the traditional model of the boss or client always being right evolves as team psychological safety gains traction. Simply put, it creates an environment where apologies are welcome at all levels and learning vs. chastisement is privileged. Research done at Google to understand team performance underscores that when all voices are listened to and valued, employees feel safe to disagree and share concerns.

Being free to be wrong starts from the top where taking the preferable knee may be creaky but necessary. Leaders set the tone for the organization. We have all been in a meeting where a senior executive lets off steam and sometimes in an inappropriate way – leaving colleagues demoralized, and not energized. On reflection, a team leader may feel bad about how they behaved and regret not that they shared frustrations, but that they shot the messengers of unwelcome news. So how do you apologize in a way that is meaningful, not rote?

1. Admit Mistakes

Leaders have the chance to show their strengths by admitting they were wrong. Telling your team directly that you regret how you spoke, you approach, or your interaction will go a long way to being seen as an admirable and human leader.

2. Seek Help

Sometimes we err by making decisions in a vacuum or we need help and are afraid to ask for support. Going solo can have repercussions that hurt teams. Asking for help is not a sign of vulnerability; it is a sign that leaders value others’ opinions.

3. Know What You Don’t Know

Have you ever been in a meeting where everyone seems to understand a point except you? No one knows everything – even leaders. Model good behavior by admitting when you don’t know something which opens the door for others to do the same.

4. Discourage Agreement

Everyone wants to please the boss and shower them with affirmations. But if you lead in an environment that creates an echo chamber, you may be missing dissenting opinions. Welcome disagreement and the sharing of contradictory ideas.

5. Take a Pause

When leaders are frustrated, they tend to vent. Venting is good, but maybe with your team. As you heat up, cool down by taking a beat and asking questions of others, giving you time to think before you speak.

Embracing a level of vulnerability can be challenging, but you may find that learning to apologize may turn out to be your most powerful asset. Next time you make a mistake, misspeak, or overtalk – apologize to those around you and see what happens. Perhaps, as with Chief Inspector Gamache, you will find that taking responsibility for your actions is a true sign of leadership.