Recently, a discussion about leaders who benefit from showing genuine remorse when things go wrong prompted me to think about how we can all learn from such a situation.
I'm not saying you have to apologize on Twitter or post a remorseful 600-word apology on Facebook when you screw up at work. That doesn't make sense since no one is Wichita is really going to care that you forgot the charts for a presentation at your company in Seattle.
The key is not just making an apology, but an honest apology. You would think that the distinction doesn't need to be made, but we all have had experience with that person who offers a flip "I'm sorry!" and then blithely goes on his or her way. Or, the sarcastic, "Well, excuse me for being human!" that doesn't help at all.
Too often, leaders think that apologizing shows weakness and that erroneous assumption trickles down to their employees. Workers are afraid to apologize to their colleagues or their managers, and vice versa. That only causes resentment, and can impact a team's ability to function.
If you've done something wrong that has hurt another person or the business, you need to:
- Apologize to the right person. Making a blanket "sorry!" doesn't make anyone feel better. If your actions, for example, caused someone else to have to work the weekend to make up for your failing, then apologize directly to that person.
- Acknowledge the damage. "I'm sorry I didn't finish my part of the report and you had to work over the weekend. I'm sure you had other things you wanted to do."
- Offer a solution. When you've made a mistake, it's critical -- especially if you're apologizing to your boss -- that you take steps to fix the problem. "I didn't have my report done because I was waiting on information from shipping. I have an appointment set up with the supervisor there and we're going to come up with a plan for communicating better so there won't be delays in the future," you say.
- Ask for suggestions. If you can't come up with a way to make things better, simply ask, "What can I do to make this up to you?"
- Don't be sneaky. If there's more bad news to come because of your screw-up, such as a client threatening to go somewhere else, then you need to get that out in the open. Bosses, especially, don't like to be blindsided by such information. "I understand our client is upset and I've already set up a call for this afternoon. I'll give you a full report when I'm done," you offer.
Things move really quickly these days, which means you can't delay when offering an apology. Act as quickly as possible, and always make your apology in person or via phone if possible. While it can be difficult to admit your failure, it's much easier to deal with it quickly and professionally and move on to showing you can provide real value to your boss, your colleagues and your company.