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Bosses Must Apologize

John used a staff meeting to complain that he was not being reimbursed promptly for his expenses.

Gretchen was flustered when her manager challenged some of the financial numbers she used in a meeting.

But John’s boss later discovered that the expense report was in a pile of papers on his desk.

Gretchen’s boss went back to his spreadsheets after the meeting to discover that he was confused and she was right.

Some bosses would pretend that nothing happened but, true leaders are not afraid to admit when they are wrong and are willing to apologize.

My rule of thumb is that if I made a mistake that affected one person, I would make sure I spoke to that person individually and express my regret.

If I questioned Gretchen’s numbers in front of others in a meeting, I would admit my error at the next meeting or in an email to the group if that was quicker. In that case, I would apologize to Gretchen before I send out my message.

Admitting your error and saying sorry is the right thing to do whether you are the boss or not. But if you are the boss, it is even more important as it demonstrates humility and your moral values.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Barbara Kellerman said, “When leaders publicly offer apologies that are both timely and good, those apologies have a positive effect. There is no evidence of a good apology that backfired.”

The caution, however, is that you must be sincere about your apology. Workers sometimes believe that when CEOs admit their shortcomings, they don’t mean it. Researchers from the United States, Israel, and the Netherlands found that apologies can feel disingenuous. Researcher Arik Cheshin explained, “The high-status person is perceived as someone who can control their emotions more effectively and use them strategically, and accordingly they are perceived as less sincere.  This perception applies to the world of business and work. The more senior they are, the less authentic their emotions are perceived as being.”

Professor Kellerman adds, “An apology that is misguided or ill-conceived can do more harm than good. An apology is obviously in order, though, even a partial apology is likely to help both leaders and their followers. Similarly, when an apology is called for, but none is given, anger and hurt can fester, and difficulties may escalate.”

Navigating that fine line might seem difficult. But the best advice I’ve read on the subject comes from Jack Skeen, author of “The Circle Blueprint,” “If employers want employees to believe them when they say, ‘I’m sorry,’ we first need to work on changing the culture that makes employers and employees feel as though they are on different social stratosphere’s.”

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