Last week I wrote about good and bad apologies, which got me thinking about what behavior necessitates an apology and what doesn’t. Apologizing (when done well) sends a very strong message and, particularly for leaders, there are times when it sends the wrong message. I wanted to delve into the situations where it can be harmful to apologize.
Caveat: It’s important to say that I am Canadian and therefore the collection of transgressions I feel culturally obliged to apologize for is vast…including when someone mistakenly phones my number at 2am triggering a mild heart attack about who has died.
Caller: “Is Frankie there.”
Me: “Oh, I’m sorry, you must have the wrong number. Sorry.”
Canadians are also renowned for our elaborate meta apology, in which our American friends chastise us for saying, “sorry,” and we unconsciously, ironically, hilariously, respond with, “Sorry! I won’t do it again.”
So, it is with that context that I argue that there are situations where deliberately withholding an apology is both appropriate and important.
Don’t Apologize for Taking Calculated Risks
There will be times when your best-laid plans don’t pan out. I call those savvy mistakes—the kind of mistakes that make us (and our organizations) better. You can call it a savvy mistake if you:
- thought about what you were going to do as a trial from the start—you were deliberate about what you were doing and weren’t just randomly trying things
- considered the risks in advance—you took time to think about what might go wrong and what impact that would have before moving forward
- limited the potential damage—you tested approaches in a safe situation where failure wouldn’t have a costly impact
- allowed for evaluation of the approach—you were transparent about the results and willing to receive and internalize feedback
If you did all those things and the outcome is not what you hoped, it is NOT a time to apologize. Doing so casts calculated risks as failures and makes it less likely that people will experiment again in the future. Instead of apologizing, reinforce for your team the importance of trying.
“It didn’t turn out as we had hoped and expected. We have a lot to learn. I’m starting a post-mortem process today.”
Particularly if you are in a leadership position, how you frame your savvy mistakes speaks volumes about the culture you’re trying to create. Don’t apologize for taking calculated risks.
Don’t Apologize for Doing What the Business Needs
A second situation in which to withhold an apology is when implementing a difficult, but a necessary business decision. The most obvious of these decisions is the decision to terminate an employee. Adding, “I’m sorry,” to the bad news is normal and natural as you try to ease the discomfort for your parting colleague but think twice about how an apology muddies the waters in this situation.
Does sorry mean that you wish you didn’t have to terminate the person? (Is it a good business decision, or not?)
Does it mean you still doubt your decision? (Is there a chance it will be reversed?)
Does sorry mean you didn’t make the call, you’re only implementing the decision of a higher-up? (Do you want to present yourself as a pawn?)
Likely, your sorry in this situation means I’m making the right business decision and I’m struggling with the unfortunate consequences on you as a human being. If that’s the case, use your language to convey exactly that message. Be definitive about why parting company is the decision you’ve arrived at and kind about the negative impact on the individual and what you might to do mitigate it.
“I have decided that today will be your last day with us. You haven’t met your sales targets in five months out of seven this year. I know this is difficult and I have set aside time to answer your questions and support you in how you want to handle your departure with the team.”
This same logic holds true for a variety of different situations including telling someone they didn’t get a promotion, closing a store or business unit, or abandoning a project.
As a leader, your first obligation is to make the right decisions for your business. Your second obligation is to implement your decisions in ways that are kind, humane, and best-suited to your culture and your integrity. You may need to empathize about the impact of a decision, but you should aim to never imply that you’re sorry about the decision itself.
Don’t Apologize for Your Success
Finally, don’t apologize for being good at your job. There are people who will try to make you feel ashamed for working hard, being smart, or getting rewarded. Don’t give in to them. As long as your success hasn’t come from throwing others under the bus, or working them to the bone and taking credit, you don’t need to apologize for being successful.
I’m doubling down on the advice not to apologize for your success if you’re a privileged person and you believe you got your job, or the plum assignment, or praise and admiration, or your hefty bonus because of who you are (or who you know) instead of what you did. Don’t bother apologizing, your apology doesn’t mean anything, and it doesn’t help anything. Instead, do something!
Keep a list of amazing and talented people who you can recommend to your boss and promote them in your network. Amplify the voices of women, LGBTQ, and BIPOC colleagues by loaning them your credibility and your airtime. If you have management responsibilities, seek out a diverse set of candidates, use selection and performance management techniques that reduce bias, and take every opportunity to grow and develop people who often don’t get that kind of mentoring. Don’t apologize for your privilege, do something to dismantle the damage discrimination is doing to our organizations.
Knowing how to deliver a sincere, specific apology is as important a skill as any other but one that can be over-used. Don’t apologize when an apology isn’t warranted. It sends mixed messages.
I’m curious, where do you need to stop apologizing?