Late last week I was in the grocery store, frantically trying to find all the ingredients I needed for the Irish Stew I'd promised to cook for dinner. I had exactly thirty minutes to get in there, get what I needed, and get out.
When I had all I needed, I dashed to the checkout and stood a respectful two metres from the lady in front of me. As my mind headed off into la-la land, a lady who worked at the store pounced on me and said - with clear frustration in her voice - "There's a line over there and you just skipped it!" I looked to where she was pointing and sure enough, there was a line of obedient shoppers waiting to be directed to the next available checkout.
"Oh", I said pathetically.
"You can't do THAT" she said bluntly. Instead of realizing that I was probably the hundredth checkout deviant she'd had to tolerate that day, I said, "Calm down: It was an honest mistake. I didn't see the line! I'll go and get in it to keep you happy."
She told me to stay where I was but in future, please could I use the line. I nodded in agreement. I then spent the next five minutes feeling very ashamed of myself for a). Losing my cool, b). Snapping at this poor woman for doing her job, and c). Jumping the queue (albeit unintentionally).
In that moment, I decided I couldn't leave the store until I'd righted my wrong.
I was 'trapped' in the line so I called to the lady to come over to where I was standing. From her body language, I could see she was expecting a barrage of verbal abuse. This is what I said, "You didn't deserve that. I'm sorry for snapping at you. In future, I'll do better."Her mask prevented me from getting a full read from her face, but I didn't need it: Her body language told me everything I needed to know. Then she said, "It's okay; we all have off-days. I know this situation [the pandemic] is frustrating. I'm just trying to do my job." I smiled (even though she couldn't see my mouth.... who else does that?) and nodded gently. Though I behaved horribly, though she didn't know me, this lady forgave me the instant I said sorry.
A genuine, meaningful apology is one of the most powerful tools we humans have available to us. It doesn't need to be dramatic and 'showy', but it does need to be real. A good, old-fashioned "Sorry" can draw a line on the past and clear the path to do better. Immediately, an apology creates a genuine bond between people that creates fertile ground for future improvement. We can't change the past, but we can recognize the wrongs we've committed. And we can acknowledge those by apologizing for them.
Apologizing is something I often encourage leaders to do. Some embrace it, most resist it. They believe it makes them look vulnerable and weak. They're right about the vulnerability but profoundly wrong about the weakness.
Behaving 'badly' for hours, weeks, months or years can earn leaders the reputation of being a total jerk who can't be trusted. Someone then points out the error of their ways and they decide to change. Which is great. But it's impossible to switch off bad behaviour and replace it with good behaviour and expect to see instant results: Unless that is, you first apologize for your past behavioural atrocities. You see, in the absence of an apology, those around you will greet the 'new you' with mistrust, resistance, and scepticism. They'll dance around you, waiting for you to slip back into your 'bad habits'. It's simple: You can't be a jerk one day and all sweetness and light the next and expect people to trust the change. However, apologize and a very different picture emerges. First, having the confidence to recognize your wrongs - and acknowledge them in front of subordinates - is massively courageous: It's not weak, it's extraordinarily brave. Second, admitting you made a mistake makes you human, fallible, and real: It makes you one of them. Third, saying sorry is a powerful way of asking people to trust you enough to give you a chance to do better: You can't change the past, but you can acknowledge you got it wrong and let people know you're committed to changing the future. Interestingly, if you apologize, they'll help you do it.
One small word said in earnest can sky-rocket you from the depths of 'jerkism' to the dizzy-heights of 'great guy or gal'. In a matter of minutes, you can raise the level of trust in your organization exponentially. Just one word said publically can create massive empathy, humanity, and engagement amongst your followers. Combine all of this, and you have yourself a high-impact, high-achieving leader with engaged and committed employees.
'Sorry' is one of the easiest and hardest things you'll ever say. But whatever discomfort and vulnerability you feel when you say it will be paid back to you in spades.