I’m sorry. Two short words (OK—one is a contraction.), yet they carry so many different meanings. Sometimes they aren’t enough or hardly matter. Other times, they carry a heavy weight. What you say, when you say it, whether you choose to say it, and how you say it can affect your relationships and your leadership and, therefore, your success.

The offhand “sorry” comes when you accidentally bump into someone while walking or your cart hits theirs in the supermarket. You make that quick apology. The other person says, “it’s OK.” or says nothing at all. Not saying “excuse me” or “sorry” makes you rude, but in the larger scheme of things, it doesn’t matter that much.

An apology carries a deeper import if your mind wanders in a conversation, and you didn’t hear what the other party was saying. It’s embarrassing, but you both will get past that quickly as long as you don’t drift off repeatedly. Avoiding the “sorry” can cause a bump in a relationship if you try to fake it and get caught.

Apologies become more significant when you have made a big mistake, such as forgetting a meeting, failing to follow-through on something you promised you would do, or saying something that revealed your implicit bias. Do you acknowledge your error? Try to minimize it? Hope it won’t be noticed? What should a leader do?

Niki Jorgensen discusses The Emotionally Intelligent Way to Apologize for a Mistake at Work. She says to be effective you need to choose your words and the correct time to make an apology. Your body language when making it also contributes to its effectiveness.

Jorgensen describes two things you should consider before making an apology:

Is an apology necessary? How to Decide – Don’t automatically rush into a long apology before taking the time to stop and think. How significant was your mistake? If you always apologize profusely, this detracts from what you say when your error was significant.

Observe the body language of the other person. Are they upset? That may provide an indication of the seriousness of your error and the impact it may have on your relationship. This is particularly true when what you said revealed your implicit bias. You need to apologize as soon as you become aware of your mistake. We all have these biases. What is important is that we recognize them when they appear and acknowledge them.

How to apologize professionally Jorgensen says to “evaluate the reasons behind the incident, the impacts on others and ways to prevent similar mistakes moving forward.” Apologizing in private is important and is more likely to  allow an open interchange. Avoid the temptation to get it all out quickly.

Apologizing is usually uncomfortable, but you also need to show you are listening to the other person’s response – and watching their body language. While you may be the one apologizing, it is an important opportunity to listen more than talk. When you acknowledge and take responsibility for your mistake, you strengthen the bonds of trust necessary in building and deepening a relationship.

To be recognized as a leader you must have integrity. Embarrassing as it can be, apologies made – or not made – reveal the person and leader you are. Take the time to acknowledge the error, whether big or small, and give the situation and person the right apology.


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