Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

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Chances are you've got a lot right in your career in your career so far.  It’s probably why you were promoted to being a manager.

But as a manager, sooner or later you’ll get something wrong.  Most of the time it won’t be your fault.  It’s the nature of performing a complex role, with incomplete information under uncertain circumstances.  But sometimes it might be your fault, and you’ll have to apologise.  

How you do that will speak volumes to your team about you and your leadership style.   It’s why it’s so astonishing that leaders continue to get this so appallingly wrong.

Learning From the Worst 

In just the last few weeks, we have seen some great examples of bad apologies.  

There was Cathy Merill, the CEO who wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post threatening to fire her employees if they didn’t return to the office.  

Washington Post headline

She subsequently wrote this to her team:

‘My intent was to write about how worried I and other CEOs are about preserving the cultures we built up in our offices.  But I understand that some of you have read it as threatening, or as an indication that I’m anything less that ecstatically appreciative of the work and sacrifice of our team in 2020.  As I have expressed many times, in a year that was especially difficult for me personally, I could not be happier or prouder or have more gratitude in my heart for all of you.  I’m so sorry that the op-ed made it look like anything else.’


‘I wrote a dreadful article which did threaten my employees with removing their benefits.  But rather than acknowledge my error, I’d like to gaslight you into thinking you interpreted my words wrong.  Failing that, ‘the op-ed did it’, it wasn’t me (ah yes, the Shaggy defence).   Also I’m ‘ecstatically appreciative’, a phrase which even more than my op-ed, shows that I need an editor. Feel better now?’  

Then there’s Jason Fried, the founder of Basecamp, who along with his co-founder, introduced a set of policies that reportedly resulted in over 40% of his staff leaving.


His subsequent apology began with the following paragraph:

‘Last week was terrible. We started with policy changes that felt simple, reasonable, and principled, and it blew things up internally in ways we never anticipated. David and I completely own the consequences, and we're sorry.’


‘Last week was terrible, but let’s generalise it first rather than starting with my role in it.  Because what I did was actually ‘simple, reasonable, and principled’, it was just the reaction to it that was bad.  I’m happy to ‘own’ what happened next, because that’s obviously bad for the company, but that original thing I did, yeah I’m happy with it.  Feel better now?’

If we were to speak to the employees of both companies, we expect those apologies didn’t land particularly well. 

Four Tips to Help Managers Apologise

So if that’s how not to do it, how can we get this right?

In a recent article, psychologist Dr Melanie Badali put forward a few ideas.  

She says that most apologies fail because of an ‘apology mismatch’, where the person giving the apology and the person receiving it want different things.  As the person making the apology, the key is therefore to really understand why the apology is necessary.

If that’s in place, then there’s four elements:

  • Acknowledge personal responsibility: don’t say ‘people make mistakes’, say ‘I made a mistake’.
  • Sincerely express regret or remorse: recognise why what you’ve done has caused an issue.
  • Explain what went wrong: warning! This presents both a risk and an opportunity.  If you explain the issue perceptively to your listener, this will help demonstrate your sincerity.  However, if you don’t present events in the way they see it, it can have the opposite effect and even come off as making excuses.
  • Make amends: what can you offer to repair any damage or as a solution to the issue.

If you click the links and read Merill and Fried’s apologies in full, you’ll see that they fall down on these various elements.

But as the article goes onto acknowledge, the difficult thing with apologies is that even with all that, there’s no guarantee it will work.  

‘How can you be sure an apology will fix the problem? You can’t, really. That’s the problem with apologies.’

But when we need to, that shouldn’t stop us trying to do it well.

Are You Ready?

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