The news has been filled with horror stories pertaining to airline travel throughout the industry. The percentage of cancelled flights is mind boggling to say nothing of the havoc it wrecks on unsuspecting travelers. It has resulted in people looking forward to long delayed vacations sad, disappointed and just angry.
One leader … the CEO of Delta Airlines, Ed Bastian … was motivated to deliver an apology via letter to the most loyal customers and on Delta’s website. Bill Murphy, contributing editor at INC.com, praised this action as ‘a lesson in effective leadership’. You can dismiss this simply thinking that this example is from the CEO of one of the major companies in the world. And as such it may be easier. Yet, the need to be able to apologize is of greater importance and of greater potential impact in smaller organizations.
Unfortunately, the apparent rarity of saying “I’m sorry” at the top of company, team or store is causing challenges especially today. Given the stress and insecurity that have been a by-product of the past two+ years the need and advisability of this has achieved new height. I believe there are few, if any, leaders that would claim they’ve made only right and good decisions especially during this time. Employees are often told of their errors and what they need to be doing better. It is important that these same individuals understand that errors and poor decisions can be and are made at all levels. They are not limited to position, organizational size, type of business or scope of operation.
Offering an apology that motivates and encourages those being led
The foundation of an apology is the ownership it conveys saying that “I was and am responsible”. A mature and responsible leader knows that in some way they are a good part of the problem, and they willingly claim their share of anything that goes wrong. Here’s the bottom line. If ‘the boss’ makes an error or has made a decision that results in errors, an apology is in order. It is thus acknowledged and the steps that will be taken to ‘fix it’. It builds trust and a closer relationship with those who report to you as leader. Here are come suggested ways to do so effectively:
- First, reflect on what was done or said.
Think about and analyze the overall situation and the impact the action had on an individual or team.
- Deliver the apology in person if possible … however don’t delay.
Where the apology is directed at just one person, looking them in the eye and owning the leader’s
contribution to the issue is important for the leader’s credibility. This will allow the employee to feel more comfortable and confident to express themselves during the meeting. If in-person not immediately possible contact the individual in another way asap.
- Take responsibility for your actions as leader.
After expressing remorse, provide specific actions and/or behavior that was done and the impact on the person or persons involved.
- Lead the acknowledgement of the problem by going first.
Doing this serves to break the ice and make it okay for others to own their share of the issues and the situation becomes immediately better.
- Be direct as to what went wrong and what you, as leader, did.
Vague doesn’t work. Given that the leader has examined what went wrong, convey in specific, direct terms what he/she did to contribute to the problem is key. It also makes this leader more effective as a leader.
- Don’t defend what has been done.
A defense is often failing to accept responsibility. Leaders should avoid self-defense and blaming of others. Simply own it and apologize.
- Make amends with the individual or group of employees as appropriate.
After explaining clearly what you as leader has done wrong, detail how this will be corrected and how the error will be avoided in the future. It demonstrates one’s willingness to both correct and overcome the issue. Doing so encourages reports to do the same.
- Don’t confuse explanations with justifications.
There may well be reasons things happened or didn’t happen that caused the issue. However, the bottom line is there was still failure that occurred and that is never good. Take responsibility as this helps the other person feel better by allowing them to gather their dignity and confidence. In turn, this makes it easier for them to heal after the situation, which allows you to remain respected and appreciated as a supervisor.
- Give them time to provide an appropriate response.
After presenting your apology, allow the employee time to take in your information and devise a response. They may need time to process what happened in the conversation. This may cause them to simply accept your apology or tell you they need time to think. Accept the response they give you and allow them some time to process the situation. They may approach you later with their own apology, or they may express their feelings with a thought-out speech.
Generally speaking, finding oneself in the position of needing to apologize for words or actions expressed to others is not a comfortable place to be. Especially, as a leader, this can and does provide a challenge. To some, being direct and acknowledging responsibility for an error that had trickle-down effect isn’t easy. To some, it is seen as conveying weakness for as a leader one should know better. Of course, that’s not true. To the extent that all leaders see themselves as ongoing learners, mistakes are going to happen. And that is what learning is all about in any position … even the leader. The bottom line is: a good boss should apologize after making a real error that offends or misleads their reports be it one or many. It does NOT undermine his position or make him seem weaker
Shekinah Shephard says
Wonderful article Mike, I feel it is so important to take accountability for your actions and apologize for whatever harm has been done. We do not have the role models in today’s culture who take ownership, I am grateful that the CEO of Delta make an apology and is willing to step up and say so. We all need to learn that one … Thank you.
Marie Campbell-Allen says
WOW, Mr Dorman; you knocked that one out of the park and across the highways!!
agreed for sure!
Barbara Wisnom says
Right on Shekinah. Apologies from leaders – genuine apologies – would make a significant difference. It’s what I call the paradox of vulnerability. While others might think you’re weak to do this, you’re really stronger as a leader.