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« Mea Culpa: The Virtues of Apologies | Main | Is Fear An Effective Motivator? »

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Newt Bailey

Hi Bob,

I think apology actually lies on a spectrum from sincere regret to harsh self-blame. I absolutely believe there are many valuable reasons for leaders to express their sincere regret about their decisions and actions which led to unwanted outcomes. "Here's how I contributed to the problem, here's what I plan to do so that this won't happen again. And here's the support I'd like to request to that end...etc."

However, I feel that harsh self-blaming "apology" is not recommended, especially if you want to lead a team where people are willing to take risks. Watching you self-flagellate at the end of the conference table could inspire thoughts like "Man, I could never do what the boss is doing right now - I'd better play it safe."

David Christiansen

It isn't just executives who benefit from apologizing when they screw up. I am a project manager at a Fortune 100 company and last year I made a fairly momentous mistake on a project I managed. The result? We were more than 200% over budget, and the project schedule had to be extended significantly.

I was tempted to blame others for my mistake. Ironically, it was the engineer who had tried to warn me of the consequences of my actions that my instincts told me to blame. "He should have done more to make me understand - he gave up too easily," was one of the angry thoughts that tempted my ego.

When the project was over it was reviewed by my peers and the management chain. At the review meeting, the executive in charge asked me to explain the project's failure. I swallowed hard and tried to smile. "It was my fault. I screwed up - I was advised not to take the course I took and I ignored it." Nobody knew what to say. They'd never seen ANYONE in our organization own up that way. After the review was over, a lot of my peers told me they would never have the courage to do that.

The executive in charge made some comment I don't remember exactly that amounted to "we all make mistakes" and the review moved on to the next project.

At the end of the year, I got the most favorable review of my career and I regained the respect of the colleague whose advice I had ignored.

My mother likes to say that there aren't very many problems that can't be solved if no one throws a fit or has a tantrum. She also likes to say that the sooner you admit you screwed up the less bad the consequences will be. This experience reinforced this lesson and supports your argument that a**holes don't prosper.

Michael Netzley

Hi Bob,

A very nice post. A colleague and I were discussing apologies in Asia, and especially in cultures influenced by overseas Chinese communities. Here, saying you are sorry and meaning it will often not be enough. The offending party needs to, by our perception, engage in self-criticism, explain what was done wrong, and then demonstrate it will not happen again.

Considering globalization and recent misunderstandings across cultures, this might be a very high bar for some leaders to get over.

Prof. J. Davis and I would still love to have you on the podcast!

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