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Stephanie Morgan The power of saying sorry

As Elton John has sung many, many times, sorry seems to be the hardest word. That is just as true in business and leadership as it is in love and personal relationships.

What surprises me is how often we say sorry when we really don’t have to, for example when someone else bumps into you and you say sorry. Or, when you legitimately have something to say, but preface it with “sorry, can I just point out…”

We apologise for all sorts of things that we really do not need to be sorry for, but when it really comes to it, when we actually do something wrong, or when we can see someone is really suffering, we struggle with saying such a small word.

At the heart of authentic leadership is emotional intelligence. Knowing how you feel and the impact you have on others, is crucial to authenticity. We all know it is not just what we do but how we make people feel that builds our reputation, and humility is one of the most genuine of emotions and always garners a huge amount of good will.

Saying sorry is one way to demonstrate humility. All authentic leaders need to build up their “sorry” muscle. We are all urged to thank each other in the workplace, and yes, thank you can go a long way. “Sorry” on the other hand is worth so much more, probably because it can be even rarer. If you really want to build relationships in the workplace, then saying “sorry” will stand you in good stead.

Why though is it so hard? Why do we find it so easy to say it when it is superfluous and so difficult when it is so obviously required?

The power of saying sorry

I think it is something to do with the way we are brought up to believe that it is shameful to be wrong. To be blamed for something also tends to bring up powerful feelings of injustice. In fact, even when it is justified, our psyche, cannot cope with it. It seems to me that just the tone of voice, when an accusation is made, puts our reptilian brain on high alert telling us that we are about to be attacked. Of course when it is working in that mode it is very difficult for us to logically and calmly assess the situation and decide what has actually happened, take responsibility for our part in it, and where appropriate offer a heartfelt apology (the only genuine sort in my book).

It gets more complicated, when in fact you might have done absolutely nothing, but still you are personally being held accountable. The perceived injustice of being held to account in those situations provokes a cold, “nothing to do with me gov” type response. An armour against the perceived attack.

The power of a genuine apology is immense

Recall the last time you really felt that someone was sorry for something that was important to you. If you believe them it reinforces your relationship, it almost takes it to a deeper level. Ultimately you feel more trusting of them.

The more emotionally intelligent you are of course, the more you understand this in yourself and others, and the more objective you can be, the easier it is to say sorry.

I actively practise saying sorry.  If you want to improve your ability to do so, then these five tips might help you to take the emotion out of it, enabling your authentic self to shine through:

  1. You don’t have to have done anything wrong to be sorry, you can be sorry that someone feels the way they do. For example, you have just given a team member some feedback about their performance, which they are finding difficult to cope with. You can feel sorry that they are finding it difficult, and just say “ I am sorry that you are finding this situation difficult”

  2. You can pre-empt a situation where someone might take offence with an apology, i.e. “I am sorry that what I am about to tell you might be uncomfortable for you”. This can really help to diffuse what might be a potentially difficult situation

  3. Take responsibility. If you really did make a mistake admit it as soon as possible and apologise for the consequences of it

  4. I love this simple process for apologising (in fact I love the whole article) that Dorothy Armstrong recommends i.e. regret, reason, remedy. So simple,  so powerful, so easy

  5. Recognise that your actions do have an impact and that even if the impact was not what you intended the other person might not realise that. More often than not people are offended and upset as a result of a misunderstanding. As soon as you realise that has happened, instead of defending yourself, or blaming them for being foolish or misunderstanding, just say sorry. Most of us would be appalled to think that anything we did truly hurt someone else

I really don’t think we should underestimate the power of saying sorry, genuinely. If we want to be authentic leaders, we need to take the lead, be responsible and if it calls for it, just say sorry.

Stephanie Morgan

Stephanie Morgan FLPI, Director of Learning Solutions, Bray Leino Learning

Sharing ideas and observations to help improve performance.


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