Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word

July 10, 2017

Over a decade ago I received a DVD of a past Chick-fil-A franchisee seminar. As I watched, the late founder Truett Cathy took the stage to deliver his opening remarks. They weren’t what I expected. He opened by saying, “If any of you has something against someone in this room, I want you to make it right.” Then he promptly left the stage and approached someone in the audience for a conversation. After an initial silence, almost every person in the audience got up and found someone to talk to. Soon the whole place was abuzz for quite sometime.

Watching the seminar footage, I couldn’t help but muse, “You just don’t see that every day….” It was just so… different. Contrast this with a scenario that played out a few years back on my team. I had received some feedback on a project that I didn’t agree with and had defended myself a little too aggressively. The next day, I decided I owed my team an apology. Even so, I remember pacing in my cubical for several minutes before I could muster up the will to admit I’d been wrong.

What is it about apologizing that is so difficult? And what makes it so important – in terms of cultural capital, influence and effectiveness?

Here are my observations.

Leaders Set the Standard

Gruenert & Whitaker wrote, “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” Sometimes the leader is the one with the bad behavior. Apologies acknowledge the standard for good behavior.

We All Have Room to Grow

Dale Carnegie said, “If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.” The bottom line is we all have room to grow, which means we’ll all make mistakes from time to time. It’s often not the mistakes themselves (both unintentional and poor behavior) but how we respond that provide the largest opportunity for growth.

Authenticity Matters

It’s been said that oftentimes our followers are more impressed with our weaknesses and failures than they are with our successes. For one thing, our struggles can seem more relate-able. When we apologize, we relate on a very human level. In doing so, we invite the people around us to view us not as their leaders but as their equals.

Lead By Example

When I was growing up, my parents would occasionally apologize to us kids. I can’t remember any specific occasions, but as I’ve gotten older, I wonder that it must’ve taken some serious willpower. I think they decided it was important to set the example that when we’re wrong, it’s our responsibility (even theirs) to make it right.

Improve Behavior, Improve Performance

In their book Thanks for the Feedback, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen point out that when you are the problem in a given situation, you actually have the most control over improving the situation. When you change, the situation changes. When we recognize that we’ve been the problem – and apologize for it – not only does the situation improve but those who oppose us now have a reason to support us in following through.

Unhindered Teams Win

In his book Leading with the Heart, basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski talks about the effectiveness of teams built on trust and a radical commitment to the collective whole. In the sport of basketball, time is precious. The longer any one team member is wrong, the longer the whole team suffers. In most organizations, time can easily get away from us. The quicker we can make things right with our teammates, the quicker we can restore trust, cohesion and effectiveness. I truly believe that teamwork is the next great competitive advantage.

Admitting our faults is tough – there’s no way around it. But there’s usually no sense in hiding what others are probably already well aware of. Let’s push ourselves to continue to acknowledge where we’ve been the problem and ask for forgiveness. The entire organization stands to benefit.

Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader. Receive his ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or   follow him on Twitter.
  • Mary Verstraete

    Excellent article.

  • Josh

    This is really valuable insight Nathan! Thank you! – Josh Erickson