Leadership and the elusive apology (Guest commentary)

Contrary to popular belief, leaders who apologize following a mistake show their strength rather than expose weakness

Leaders may find themselves in complex situations where saying sorry is the best course of action. Unfortunately, apologies are often elusive.

Sometimes leaders are fully responsible for difficult situations, while at other times the difficulties are products of the external environment or the result of a complex combination of events. No matter how unfortunate situations emerge, they often threaten or even destroy important relationships. Organizational leaders are then left to manage and rectify these fragile interpersonal or inter-organizational relationships.

In such situations, two central questions emerge: Could leaders have avoided or minimized such damage? And once these situations have emerged, can leaders extricate themselves and even enhance the relationships?

Conventional wisdom holds that they cannot, as expressed in the oft-quoted statement, “organizational trust takes years to develop, yet mere seconds to destroy.”

We do not necessarily subscribe to the view that leaders are powerless in such situations. No matter how tragic a situation, it is possible for leaders to emerge from it not only with critical relationships intact, but with the quality of these relationships enhanced. A growing number of cases, and a small body of empirical research, support the notion that it is possible both to avoid and to fix such problems. The most effective, yet perhaps least frequently used, strategy is a sincere and timely apology.

Critically, apologies involve more than saying “I am sorry.” At its most basic level, an apology consists of admitting an act of wrongdoing. But this is simply not enough. The definition must be extended to contain additional components in order to be perceived as sincere, including expressing remorse (“I am sorry”), accepting responsibility (“I accept responsibility for what I have done”), demonstrating empathy (“I understand that I hurt you through my actions”), offering some form of recompense (“I will contact your clients to tell them it was my fault”) and finally, providing a plan of action (“in the future, I will ensure that this does not recur by taking the following steps…”).

Despite the fear that leaders who apologize for their errors demonstrate weakness, a review of case studies reveals that apologies can have positive consequences for organizational leaders. Our recent research at Queen’s School of Business demonstrates that contrary to popular belief, leaders who apologized following a mistake were perceived as more transformational than those who chose not to apologize for similar transgressions. This effect probably occurs because leaders who apologize are demonstrating their positive values and their sincere concern for their followers, both of which are critical elements in transformational leadership. Transformational leadership is inspirational and motivational, influencing others to emulate high standards.

Thus, apologies benefit the recipients because the leader shows humility, acknowledges the negative experience, takes responsibility appropriately, compensates them and offers a plan for the future. But it’s not just the recipients who benefit from the apology. Apologies can benefit both parties in an incident. Apologies liberate leaders, freeing them of guilt regarding the situation. Furthermore, offering an apology is the first step toward potential forgiveness, an outcome often sought within damaged or wounded relationships.

A full, sincere and timely apology allows both parties to move forward more effectively toward the realms of understanding and then forgiveness. As increasing numbers of case studies and empirical research begin to support this, it is time to change leadership behaviors.

Heather Dezan is a graduate student at the Queen’s School of Business, and can be reached at [email protected]. Julian Barling, associate dean for the Research and Graduate Programs at the Queen’s School of Business, holds a Queen’s Research Chair and can be reached at [email protected]
. The Queen’s University study “Apologies and Transform-ational Leadership” can be found in the Journal of Business Ethics’ January 2006 issue.

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