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Mistake Recovery: The Art of the Apology

Posted by Louellen Essex on September 23, 2013 in Managing Difficult Situations

Are you a leader who is open about your mistakes, willing to admit your infallibility? Or, are you more apt to pretend mistakes didn’t happen, ignoring or dancing around them? While all leaders fail at times, what distinguishes the successful from the unsuccessful ones is their ability to recover. And, those that effectively recover are often liked more, because the process “humanizes” them. How do effective leaders do this? By using the art of the apology to launch their approach.

When the consequences of poor decisions and actions negatively affect the staff you lead or the public you serve, an apology is in order. Not just any apology will do, however. Without sincerity and careful thought, an apology can do more harm than good. Skip the e-mail. Apologies must be done in person to ensure the proper tone is communicated and that the message is understood. Avoid the ill-conceived, yet common, approach to communicating about a mistake: Offer a statement of regret, i.e. I’m sorry I did not take your input into account. Then, say but, i.e. but I was on a tight deadline and couldn’t take the time to review all of the comments. Doing this diminishes the sincerity of the apology by focusing on excuses, something the listener really doesn’t want to hear.

To be effective and begin the mistake recovery process, an apology must have three distinct components:

Begin with a review of what went wrong, including an acknowledgment of how the mistake impacted the people affected. Use enough detail to let those listening know you fully understand the issue. Looking back on the process I used to develop the protocol, I recognize that I didn’t adequately assess the input I received from all of you. I realize now that I missed several relevant factors. I also acknowledge that many of you felt I was not respectful of your experience and talent.

Make a statement of your regret. I’m sorry for that.

Outline what actions you will take to rectify the situation. Moving forward, I will establish a group process for development of future protocol. The first group will be assembled this week to revise the protocol in question.

Having made the apology, your follow-up needs to be flawless. While you may be forgiven for one mistake, another similar blunder soon thereafter will most likely permanently damage your credibility.

Leaders can’t be perfect. But they can hone the skills necessary to turn mistakes into productive learning situations for themselves and their organizations. Don’t be afraid to demonstrate humility. Honesty is the best policy.

Adapted from Breaking the Code of Silence. Prominent Leaders Reveal How They Rebounded from Seven Critical Mistakes by Mitchell E. Kusy and Louellen N. Essex, 2005.

What are some ways you have recovered from mistakes? What were the outcomes?

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In these times of rapid change, leaders can never stop learning.”

Dr. Louellen Essex