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How Leaders Build Trust With Apologies

How Leaders Build Trust With Apologies

Do you ever stop to think about the purpose of an apology and why we apologize?

This morning, I sent an email to my valued subscribers that was incorrectly formatted and introduced. I am sending a note of apology for the inconvenience, but the incident made me think about the importance of sincere and effective apologies and how they affect relationships and one's ability to lead.

Leaders who want to build trust recognize the need to apologize.

Clients, friends and families who are harmed or inconvenienced want to know that they are important enough to the person or company that caused harm or inconvenience to take the time to admit their mistakes and commit to doing better in the future. They do not want to hear excuses or blame.

In her 2006 article, When Should a Leader Apologize—and When Not?, Barbara Kellerman discusses the legal and business implications of apologies. The article provides some valuable insights into the implications of apologizing in the business world.

Linda Stamato went much farther in her article Should Business Leaders Apologize? Why, When, and How and Apology Matters. She discusses the purpose and value of apologizes, cultural and gender differences in apologizing, the importance of sincerity, and she gave some very compelling examples of apologies that made a difference, both positively and negatively.

Stamato concludes her article by saying: "To apologize is to comprehend and acknowledge one’s error, to act justly; it requires that the truth be told without minimizing or rationalizing the behavior. This burden suggests the full measure of an apology’s potential—its power to get beyond the past in a manner that allows for reconciliation provides a means to make things right and that restores, even enhances, relationships."

An apology is a statement that shows concern for the feelings of others. It says, “I want to maintain a relationship and to live, work or play productively and in harmony.” An apology is more than a way to make oneself feel better. It says to the other person, “I want you to know that I value you.” It clears the way for future interaction.

An effective apology is more than saying, “I’m sorry.” With an effective apology, a leader takes responsibility for breaking a promise or causing harm. She does not make excuses, and she ends with a discussion about how to make up the loss or inconvenience. The results of admitting mistakes and working to move forward lead to stronger ties and greater commitment in a relationship. 

For leaders, the ability to mend and maintain relationships is critical. Failure to apologize or admit mistakes reduces trust and productivity. For employees or followers, failing to apologize leads to compliance, not commitment. For customers or clients, that failure leads to loss of business. For friends or family, it leads to alienation.

When delivering an effective apology, an individual uses the following “formula.”

  • He states that he made a promise or acknowledges an expectation for his behavior.
  • He states that he broke a promise or caused harm.
  • He states or asks what harm or inconvenience a broken promise or action caused.
  • He offers to redress the harm or inconvenience, if possible.
  • He negotiates or offers a new promise or improved behavior, if appropriate.

In business the circumstances may change the formula somewhat, but the idea is the same: a statement of harm or loss and a sincere commitment to make up for the loss so the relationship can move forward. 

Delivering an effective apology takes practice. Asking how to make up for harm or inconvenience takes more time and thought than a simple, “I’m sorry.” Learning to deliver an apology without excuses can also take immense courage. It requires accepting full responsibility for one's actions, and it demands full attention to making things right with the person or persons who were harmed or inconvenienced. 

The listener judges the apology by it's sincerity.

However, the real test of an apology comes in what follows. An apology clears the path for future engagement and trust. Following that path requires commitment to do better in the future. It depends on future action, not just words spoken in contrition.

When have you had to apologize? What were the results? 

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REFERENCES:


Communication and trust-building is covered in much greater detail in my book, Connect: Affective Leadership℠ for Effective Results. 

 

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