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Boss’s Tip of the Week #19: Apologizing: Why Managing Often Means Having To Say “I’m Sorry”

Here is the latest installment of the Boss’s Tip of the Week.  This advice column for managers is brought to you by Bob Rosner and Allan Halcrow, co-authors of The Boss’s Survival Guide.

Managers who never apologize are diminished. Employees know that no one is perfect, and they lose respect for managers who can’t accept that. “Is it that he doesn’t care when he screws up, that he’s too dumb to know, or that he’s too big a coward to admit it?” one employee asked about her boss. “Either way, I have no confidence that he’s going to notice a problem and do something to fix it. And it’s hard to respect someone who shows no respect for you.”
 
Hardly a recipe for a happy, healthy workplace is it? Now, we’re not asking you to whip yourself with a wet noodle or to go on Oprah to atone for your sins, but we are asking that when you blow it, you admit it and offer a sincere apology. Here’s how:
 
Accept that you aren’t perfect. Yes, you’re the boss. That doesn’t make you infallible. In fact, as a boss you have more chances to goof up than anyone. Don’t you feel better already?
 
‘fess up. No screw up is worse than the mess you can get into pretending it didn’t happen. (Nixon/Watergate. Clinton/Monica. Point made.) If you dropped the ball, say so and apologize. And when you apologize, do it sincerely.
 
Listen to your inner voice. Adding numbers incorrectly is one kind of mistake; setting unrealistic deadlines is another. And then there are situations that just don’t feel right, such as when you lose it in a meeting, snap at a colleague because you have the headache from hell, or stoop to sarcasm when you run out of patience. The little voice in your head will squawk enough to call your attention to most transgressions. When you hear it, heed it and apologize.
 
Don’t wait to be asked for an apology. Times will occur when you really don’t know you blew it. When that happens and people call you on it, offer an apology with grace. More often, you’ll know you made a mistake. Don’t make people come to you and ask for an apology; that’s more than a little manipulative.
 
Accept your role as apologist-in-chief. You’re the boss, which to your employees makes you the voice of the company. That means you’ll be called upon to apologize for things you may have had nothing to do with. If an employee is shown to have been sexually harassed, for example, extend an apology on behalf of the company. Be sensitive to such situations. Your employees will feel like you’re supporting them against the bureaucracy.
 
Don’t play the blame game. Finding blame is highly overrated. It has only one possible outcome, which is to make everyone afraid of making mistakes. It’s better not to blame anyone. Instead, see mistakes as learning opportunities.
 
Be honest with yourself. When mistakes happen, you should first ask yourself what you may have done to contribute to the problem. Perhaps you’ve done nothing. Ask anyway. It’s a good exercise to keep yourself honest. When you’ve blown it, admit it to yourself.
 
Real Life Examples
 
• The employees of a particular business report to work each morning two hours before the shop opens. That way, they have time to reconcile the cash registers, clean the shop, and put away stock. One morning, they walked in to find so much new stock that they knew it would be a challenge to get it all put away. The situation was further complicated when the boss asked them to attend a morning meeting. One of the employees explained the situation and offered that if they attended the meeting the shop might not open on time. The manager agreed that that was all right.
 
But after the meeting the boss gave them only a few minutes before he popped in and asked when the shop would open. The employees assured him that they were doing their best. A few minutes later he was back. The third time he appeared he stayed in the shop and began looking in the cases at the merchandise. Around him, employees put stock away and then opened the shop.
 
Afterward, one of the employees went to the boss. “I told him I didn’t appreciate how things had gone,” he said. “We had discussed the shop opening and agreed it would be late. Having him keep asking about it, and then stand around doing nothing, didn’t help. I suggested that it would have been better if he had helped, or at least sent some other people in to help.
 
“He looked at me, and then he agreed. He said that we seemed so organized that he hadn’t seen anything he could do, but he said he should have asked. And then he apologized. His apology went such a long way toward defusing the tension. It just stopped right then. Otherwise, we probably would have stewed about it all day.”

• The CEO was having a monthly meeting with the management team. As usual, there was a long agenda. When it came time for new business, one manager, a newcomer to the team, shared some ideas she had for employee recognition.

She wasn’t prepared for the response she got. The CEO flew into a rage, screaming at the manager, pounding on the table and shaking paper. She shouted that she had been recognizing employees, and that it was no longer up to her to do it. When the manager said quietly that she hadn’t intended that the CEO implement her ideas, she was greeted with more screaming. Everyone at the table was shell-shocked.

Later, the CEO paid a visit to the manager. She explained that recognition had been an ongoing struggle, and that the discussion had touched a raw nerve, but she didn’t apologize. Nor did she apologize to any of the other managers who had been at the meeting.

The manager was appalled. “It was so inappropriate,” she said. “I just felt abused. When there was no apology, I felt the CEO had no respect for us at all.”

She and another manager at the meeting later cited the meeting as a turning point in their decisions to leave the company.

Boss’s Tip of the Week #19: Apologizing: Why Managing Often Means Having To Say “I’m Sorry”
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