02.13.09 Issue #362 Forward This Newsletter To A Colleague
Nancy Haller
Dr. Nancy Haller
Dentist Coach
McKenzie Management
coach@ mckenziemgmt.com
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Eating Crow, Or Showing Good Leadership?

I planned to cover a different topic for this issue of the McKenzie e-newsletter. But when I picked up the Wall Street Journal and saw the headlines, I just had to write this article.

I Screwed Up...My Job Is to Get This Thing Back on Track,” President Says

Party affiliation and mainstream politics aside, you will agree that the power of an apology is to restore dignity, trust and a sense of justice. Research shows that contrary to the fear that apologies are a sign of weakness, leaders who apologize are seen in a more favorable light than those who don’t take responsibility for their actions. Apologies have profound influences on both the giver and the recipient. That does not mean you need to say mea culpa for everything. In fact, there are indications that too many “I’m sorrys” are bad—selectivity is the key. So why, when and how should a leader apologize?

1. The offense is serious.
Unless you practice ostrich leadership, most people know when they’ve done something wrong. By age 10, children understand the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the beginning of a true understanding of right and wrong, of guilt and values.

2. The wrongdoing was your fault.
From the 1992 McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit to flagrant denials of responsibility by public and private officials, we live an age of blame-the-other-guy. Life is about making choices and accepting the consequences of our actions and personal accountability for our decisions. If you’ve made a mistake, own up to it. Take responsibility and model how to do the right thing. Be careful to avoid the “double talk” apologyI’m sorry if you felt offended. Acknowledge what you did.

3. Be prompt.
There is a shelf life on apologies. The goal of an apology is to reconcile with your staff and maximize productivity. If you wait too long, you run the risk of relationship damage. The sooner you make amends the faster you’ll get your team—and your practice—back on track.

4. Be explicit, be brief and be sincere.
An apology is not about you. It’s about what you’ve done to offend the other person. Express regret succinctly. Long, drawn-out explanations are ineffective. Avoid talking about how bad you feel. Don’t rationalize your actions. This is not about relieving your guilt; it’s about how you impacted someone else.

Depending on the offense and your skill level, it helps to write out your apology and practice it. Be sure your body language matches your words. Avoid crossed arms or pointing fingers. Make eye contact.

If you offended someone in private, apologize quietly to that person. However, if your transgression was done in front of others, you’ll be more effective by apologizing in public.

5. Be patient.
Just saying, “I’m sorry,” doesn’t guarantee resolution. An apology is only the first step toward restoring trust in a relationship. The healing or forgiveness is likely to take time. When you apologize you really are entering a process of negotiation. Allow the other person to vent. Be prepared to listen. Acknowledge that you understand how the other person felt.

6. Be committed and consistent.
Take corrective action. Words are easy to say but a sincere apology is based on a genuine willingness to make things right. Show that you’ve learned from your mistake and demonstrate actions to back that up. As the saying goes, talk is cheap. If you don’t do what you say, your apology loses its meaning and you lose credibility!

Good leaders are human and humans all make mistakes. Owning up to them is the important thing. When (not if) you need to apologize, step up to the plate and show integrity. You’ll strengthen your leadership by modeling responsibility and accountability. You’ll improve relationships. You’ll build trust with your staff.

There is more anecdotal evidence than hard data about what apologies accomplish, but research suggests that leaders are prone to overestimating the costs of apologies and underestimating the benefits. Apologizing is difficult because it confronts us with our foibles and vulnerabilities, but when you show leadership courage, great things can happen.

Dr. Haller is the Leadership Coach at McKenzie Management. She can be reached at coach@mckenziemgmt.com.

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