I recently learned a really important lesson about apologizing.
I attended a meeting where a leader brought up an opportunity for the staff to attend a training. Unfortunately it was described in a way which came across as demeaning. The more the leader spoke about the “opportunity,” the worse it became.
I left the meeting with a WTF was that in my mind. I was feeling angry and unappreciated. Which I know was not the leader’s intent.
I can honestly say I have never felt marginalized before. (I know, I am lucky it was the first time.) It was a new feeling. One I didn’t like it one bit. But it also made me aware of how important words are. The importance of needing to think carefully about what you are going to talk about, especially if it is a difficult discussion you need to have. That the intent behind your words is not more important than the actual words used.
More than two weeks passed. Nothing more was said about the “training”. Nothing was officially brought up about the meeting. It just wasn’t mentioned.
Two weeks went by and then an email went out about a second all hands meeting. No specific details about the meeting, just the time and date.
So, the team gathered. The leader got up and humbly gave his apology. The apology was sincere. The leader admitted the mistakes made and took ownership for the errors. The leader explained the “training” as it should have originally been explained. The leader was thoughtful, well spoken and sincere. The leader asked for feedback. It should have been enough. It wasn’t.
You see, two weeks was a long time for people to have felt bad. We had moved. Moved on with our lives and our daily work. We had moved on with hard with the feeling that leadership just didn’t care. The lack of apology for weeks caused the hard feelings to solidify.
So much time had passed. The apology almost seemed inappropriate, no matter how heartfelt it was.
Not wanting to get stuck in a bad place, I decided to learn something, from this situation. Having been on the other side of a bad apology, I wanted to make sure I didn’t do the same thing. I wanted to make sure I never made people feel worse when I apologized.
So, I did some research on what makes a good apology. I found the following and I think it makes a good baseline for an apology:
- Express remorse
- Admit responsibility
- Make amends
- Promise it won’t happen again.
But wanting to apply what I had recently experienced, I added a few rules to an apology. An apology should be:
The time given between the wrong and the apology is so crucial. I’m not sure I would have understood the importance in the timing of an apology had I not been on the other side of one which took too long to happen.
In fact, generally speaking an untimely apology comes across more about the person giving the apology than about the person who was wronged. I know it is one of the 12 steps in recovery and an important step for people to be able to move one with their lives, but at some point, there is just no reason for the apology other than to relieve the guilt of the person giving the apology.
Whats more the lack of timeliness also makes the apology seem insincere.
I honestly don’t think in this case, it was an insincere apology. I know the leader was busy and the leader mentioned the need to do it in person. I agree an in person apology is important, but maybe a timely email of
“holy crap I f’d that up today,”
may have gone a long way to fixing hurt feelings and a sense of mistrust.
I am taking this lesson to heart. I know it is hard to apologize. I know it is hard to admit you made a mistake. I know it is embarrassing and sometimes you just don’t necessarily have the words to do it.
But maybe that is part of what makes the apology real. Admitting you don’t know how or if you can fix your mistake. Admitted you don’t have the words to apologize, but that you are deeply sorry. This makes you human and people can relate to that.
One last thing about apologizing and then I will stop. The last part of the apology which I think is important to acknowledge is that you may not be forgiven.
The art of the apology is to do the first six steps above and then let go of the outcome. You can’t expect forgiveness. What you did could be unforgivable. It is for the person who was wronged to give and give freely as they choose. (Note, I’m not saying this leaders words are unforgivable.)
My two big take aways from this unfortunate incident were the words we use are way more important that the intent behind them and when you f’up your words, make your apology fast.
I hope you never are in the position of needing to make a public apology for something, but if you do, rip the band-aid off and apologize. Quickly.