Copyright 2011 TIGERS Success Series

By Dianne Crampton

Recently an acquaintance described to me an incident involving a young man employed by a logging company contracted to thin federal forests as part of the US economic “stimulus” package. The employee plunged over an embankment while driving a skidder and was pinned under the 40,000 pound machine. Three feet more and the 15- foot drop would have been 50 feet, and his life would be over.

The cause of the accident may have been faulty brakes.

The outcome was a crushed foot. According to his teammates the driver did everything he could to stop the skidder. He dropped the front loader and instead of finding dirt to bite into, solid rock gave the vehicle nothing to grab as he rolled over the edge.

The first call the young man received was from his boss, who allegedly said he was negligent in driving the vehicle. The boss apparently had come to this conclusion after talking with his mechanic. One of the company’s longest term employees, the mechanic, according to the story, had been instructed to fix the brakes weeks ago and was allegedly skirting accountability for why an unsafe vehicle was on the lot.

The phone conversation, understandably, upset the young man. He called an industrial claims attorney. In the meantime, the boss probably called his attorney, too, as more information came to light.

What kept this unfortunate accident from escalating into an expensive lawsuit were two sincere words – I’m sorry.

The boss apologized for having jumped to conclusions and was sincerely sorry for the accident. He told the employee that OSHA would be investigating everything and not to worry about his workman’s compensation or anything related to his job. The boss took responsibility.

The mark of a good leader is how effectively he or she says I’m sorry. In this instance, these simple words diffused anger, concern and resentment.

In John Kandor’s new book, Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges and Restoring Trust, Kandor writes that it is remarkable how many leaders are lousy at saying I’m sorry and at owning up to their mistakes. Maybe it is because making apologies is something that is not taught in business schools. Or maybe it is because of competitive cultures that assume apologizing places a person in a weakened power position. Maybe the competitor believes that apologizing is a sign of weakness or vulnerability.

Within the dynamics of team culture, however, a leader must take responsibility as soon as possible. Stonewalling makes things worse. Ultimately low morale and reduced productivity takes hold as the story floats and grows from one person to the next.

Apologizing is not easy. And according to Kandor, there are steps a leader can take to make the apology as sincere and effective as possible.

  • Frame all apologies with the word “I”. Taking personal responsibility is what an apology is about. Therefore, say, “I apologize.”
  • Be direct. Saying, “Someone put a vehicle on the lot without brakes” skirts accountability. Say, “I had a vehicle on the lot without brakes.”
  • Adding the words, if or but, to the apology erodes sincerity. For example, saying, “If I had a vehicle on the lot without breaks …” negates personal responsibility.
  • Never joke. It makes light of the situation and shows disrespect.
  • Never assume you know what another person feels. Saying, “I know how you must feel,” gives rise to feelings of being taken for granted. Instead, saying, “I can not imagine how frightening it was to plunge over the cliff, “ would be better.
  • Never ask what you can do to make things better. Offer a solution. For example, the young man’s boss let him know that OSHA would be investigating and that he should have no worries about his workman’s comp and recovery period.
  • Don’t ramble. Keep the apology to the point to maximize its impact.
  • Encourage a response. Allow the recipient to share his or her perspective. Listen. Do not interrupt. Do not argue. Listen to understand their entire perspective.

According to Kandor, “Most offenses are unintentional, careless and ignorant. Very few of us wake up in the morning deciding that we are going to do or say something to offend someone else. Nonetheless, it is important to own responsibility and act to repair the damage.”

Leaders who learn how to apologize create a culture where workers can make mistakes, learn and grow. By being willing to express your own culpability and remorse, blame is not projected elsewhere. An effective apology also communicates that you are accountable for what you learned and how what you learned will change what happens in the future.

Let’s face it. Everyone makes mistakes. And when it affects the welfare of others, a good apology will set things straight and helps everyone move on.