The Power of Apology


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“I regard apologizing as the most magical, restorative, healing gesture a human being can make. It is at the centerpiece of my work with executives who want to get better.” – Marshal Goldsmith

Apologizing to another person is such a powerful act. In Goldsmith’s words it is:

  • magical;
  • restorative; and
  • healing.

As Tom Peters says, “…it is the stuff like learning how to apologize effectively that this the real essence of strategic strength.” And, yet for many of us, it is really hard to do. In this post I’d like to cover two types of apologies that are relevant for business:

  • an apology from a business to a customer; and
  • an apology from a leader to an employee.

Many believe that businesses and business leaders should hide their weaknesses and mistakes. This is especially true for men, and an area where gender differences are fairly pronounced.

Great leaders and great businesses don’t hesitate to say “I’m sorry” and “I was wrong.” The strategic strength that Tom Peters refers to flows from two personal and cultural character traits: courage and honesty. When a business or business leader admits a mistake and apologizes, it demonstrates courage, something that others readily recognize and value. It also is a signal that honor and honesty come first. It is not only the act of apologizing but also the implied character traits that benefit relationships.

A genuine apology strengthens the emotional connection a person feels towards a business or business leader. Here are a few examples that illustrate the power of connecting business, humility and humanity.

Chris Brogan, CEO and President of Human Design Works, a business design company, tells the story of a time when he meant to send an email to a select 200 people and ended up sending it to 10 times that many. He has horrified at his mistake. He wanted to hide under a rock. Instead he sent a sincere apology to the unintended recipients. Here are some of the responses he received:

Lynn – You’re a class act. I wondered about that email. Now I understand. Mistakes happen, and once again, you show how to react.

Nicole – YOU can spam me any day! JUST YOU! Hope all is well and Happy Monday!

David – We forgive you. Hope all is well at SXSW.

Judy – Gosh! It’s lovely of you to send this note. And I understand – hey, it happens to everyone! Thank you for this follow up e-mail. It’s very nice.

Pat – All is forgiven. Good to see even the great ones make the same mistakes we do :).

In medicine, hospitals are finding that doctors who make mistakes and then disclose what happened and offer a sincere apology are sued much less often. In the words of one attorney:

“She told me that the doctor was completely candid, completely honest, and so frank that she and her husband — usually the husband wants to pound the guy — that all the anger was gone,” Mr. Pritchard said. “His apology helped get the case settled for a lower amount of money.”

Why should businesses and business leaders apologize when missteps occur and mistakes are made? Because it is the right thing to do. Businesses and leaders who do the right thing are rewarded by stronger relationships and greater loyalty.

How to Apologize Well

Apologizing isn’t something that comes naturally in most businesses or for most business leaders. Fortunately, it is possible to study, practice and get better at the art of apologizing. Here are a few traits of a good apology:

Emotional Strength – In order to apologize, leaders must be comfortable with vulnerability. They must rise above their insecurities. They must value honor and honesty and find the courage to address their mistakes.

Sincerity – An apology must be sincere in order to evoke forgiveness and empathy. An apology that isn’t perceived as heartfelt has little impact.

Empathy – Customer service representatives should demonstrate empathy and they should be encouraged to offer sincere, heartfelt, emotional responses to customer problems and concerns. This goes for business leaders as well.

Ownership – An apology is much more powerful when a business or business leader demonstrates accountability and commits to resolve the problem.

Personal touch – Adding a personal touch, such as a handwritten note or driving over to a customer’s office to apologize in person, can make a significant difference in the customer or employee experience. This is a little something extra that is outside the the norm. It signals the importance of the apology.

Mistakes and missteps are unavoidable. Sooner or later, they will occur. It’s how you and your business rise to the occasion that matters.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Dave Birckhead
Dave is the Global Head of Marketing Technology at Spotify. He has worked with numerous Fortune 500 companies to bring about marketing technology solutions that optimize business performance, accelerate innovation and enhance marketing. You can find Dave on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Plus.


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