- Apologizing is not weakness
- Owning our missteps – shows humanity, an acknowledgement of responsibility, humility, and vulnerability
- The process of apologizing helps us reset and reprioritize the things we value
- An apology clears the way for new beginnings and possibilities
- Saying I’m sorry will help us move towards growth and understanding
While our phones lit up with text messages, our email inboxes received the subject line “emergency and mandatory conference call in one hour”. Fearing the worst, our team began to brace itself. It was not uncommon for the executives of our company to assign an urgent status to a conference call with little time to prepare, but somehow, this one felt different.
What happened? Who got fired? Who’s going to have the scoop in advance? Have we been bought out? Those thoughts and the words of George Costanza bounced around in my head – “What is it? Is it Lupus, is it Lupus? For whatever reason, in times of uncertainty, the voice in my head is often overtaken by George Costanza. Hard to tell what’s going on there so, we will explore that in a future post.
With little time to prepare for our call, George and I grabbed a cup of coffee and dialed in with the other leaders across the company, who were also summoned.
Upon connecting to the call, we were greeted by the senior leadership team. “Thanks for jumping on the call with such short notice; we have important news to discuss”. Following the greeting, we were all put on notice and commissioned with the responsibility of restructuring our leadership teams in addition to laying off a considerable percentage of our workforce. The presentation wrapped up approximately 15 minutes after the beginning of the call and offered no instructions, no guidance of substance, or talking points on how to best deliver the news to our teams. In addition to the lack of instructions, there was no mention of customer impact, company morale, and most importantly the expected heartbreak which would soon be felt by team members throughout the organization. After a short pause, the call was opened up for questions. I can’t remember anyone asking a single question – shock had set it.
The executive team prepared to close out the conference call following the silent Q & A and out of nowhere, came the only clear instruction from an executive, “do not apologize when delivering this news to your teams. We have done nothing wrong and have no need to apologize”. As I processed those words, the tone of my inner George changed from irrational George to angry George. “Are you crazy”? What do you mean don’t apologize? Of course I’m going to apologize, I care about my team members and their families. This is life changing information and I am going to do everything within my power to support my team during this time of transition including telling them from the depths of my heart – “I’m so sorry that you are receiving this unexpected and difficult news”. Why were our executives solely focused on not apologizing to our team members? As I visualized the conference room on the other end of the call, I could see the legal and compliance teams emphasizing the point to one another – “make sure no one apologizes, we can’t exhibit an admission of guilt”. I was thrown for a loop, frustrated, and unable to comprehend the perceived insensitivity behind the instructions.
Within hours, my team team had pulled together all of the resources at our disposal and began creating a strategy of compassion which honored the difficulties that our team members would soon be experiencing.
Over the next 48 hours, we would go on to facilitate these difficult conversations with our impacted team members. Every one of those discussions involved us saying “I am so sorry that you are going through this and I want you know that we will do everything possible to make this a smooth transition”. Those words were not only offered as a showing of solidarity, it was a commitment to honor and value our team members as they faced next steps, elsewhere.
This case study is not intended to shame or emphasize missteps. The executives were making really tough decisions that were likely viewed as necessary in order to maintain the viability and health of this organization. What I wanted to showcase was how messy these types of experiences can be and how important it is for us to begin this type of process by extending words of care and empathy including, “I’m so sorry that we are experiencing these difficult times, I know it’s tough”.
Let’s briefly review the reasons in favor and in opposition of saying I’m sorry.
Reasons not to apologize?
- This could create some sort of legal exposure or be viewed as an admission of wrongdoing
- An organization does not want to accept responsibility
- This was a standard business practice and many businesses do it
- The company does not want to show weakness or be viewed as struggling
What can be gained with an apology:
- Connection and engagement
- Willingness to share ideas and information
- Deeper connection to company results and success
- Collective learning
- Building or rebuilding a feeling of community
- Shared sense of meaning. Knowing that we are connected to something greater than ourselves – we are connected to one another.
- Increased team member and organizational psychological capital: hope, optimism, resilience, and self efficacy
What George and the other leaders of this organization wanted to desperately maintain throughout this process was their ability to be open and transparent. They wanted to offer real information and allow for team members to freely express their emotions and frustrations. They wanted to engage their team members with humanity.
Leadership requires more than the ability and authority to make hard calls. It requires us to extend empathy and sincerity in the most difficult of situations. We don’t get to insulate ourselves from responsibility and most of the time we don’t get do-overs. What we do have are countless opportunities to be real in sharing the professional and personal heartbreak and difficulties that our team members experience in the same way as we share in their successes.
At times, it can feel as if our only options are poor options. When our emotional and intellectual resources are pushed to capacity, we struggle in knowing that we are making the right decisions. When faced with these type of challenges, the safest decision, which may very well require every ounce of courage and daring that you possess, is to sincerely say the following. “I see that you are hurting and I’m so sorry you are going through this”.
Be daring, be willing, and Lead On my friends.