Effective and Sincere Apologies

We live in a culture that often sees failure as a personal – ‘I am a failure because xxxx happened’ vs ‘I failed when I let xxxx happen.’ When we keep this perspective, failing and making mistakes is about being human. We fail, we learn from our failures, we get up, do better and move forward. This approach does not destroy trust. It’s about your behavior not your character.


Mistakes happen all the time. But when we screw up, it is often hard to craft an authentic and effective apology. Of course, it can be even more significant when executives have to make public apologies for corporate mistakes.

There’s a great article about this by Ron Ashkenas on the Harvard Business Review site January, 2015, “When a Public Mistake Requires an Old-Fashioned Apology.”

In my previous post, I mentioned that most of us do not craft an effective apology because we are so focused on and concerned with explaining ourselves. We justify.

The thing is, when you screw up, people do not care to hear about you. In order for them to forgive you, they want to know you recognize and understand how you’ve offended them. Your rationalizations for offending them are not going to endear you. If fact it creates further distrust of you.

The key to moving forward is to accept that you are not perfect – mistakes are inevitable. Click To Tweet

Make your apology sincerely about them and how they must be feeling. Focus on how they have been affected by your mistake or your words.If you are not sure what that is, ask: “what do you need from me.”

Take all ambiguity out of the situation. Do not assume you know how they feel. Inquire, and listen to their answers.

Authentically Acknowledge Their Feelings and Values

The people you have offended need you to acknowledge their perspective. Do not argue or debate it. Encourage them to talk about what is important to them, letting them know you hear and understand.

You open the door to healing the damage done when you deeply listen while they share their feelings. You are offering a seed of trust.

Powerful people often get this wrong. They are afraid that admitting wrong-doing will diminish their executive presence. They are afraid of failing or being seen as a failure. Yet the opposite is more true – people respect seeing the humanity of others.

The question is how do you recover from one of these moments. A written and public apology is a good first step, but it is not enough. Often, meeting with individuals is required.

The real key to moving forward is to accept that you are not perfect, and that future mistakes are probably inevitable. Without this mindset, people can convince themselves that they were “misunderstood” or there was poor communication. They blame the other person’s miss-perception.

During my work in organizations, I have seen people excuse themselves this way for mistakes made or for failed initiatives. It is a recipe for future disasters and destroying the trust of the people. Far better to learn how to deliver an authentic apology than to have to try to regain trust once lost.

What are your experiences with owning mistakes and authentic appologies? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me or let’s connect on LinkedIn.


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