The power of apology

None of us has handled COVID-19 perfectly. No one could.

Every day presented untested challenges with unprecedented (a word I hope to never use again) risks. As leaders, we set our workplace cultures by our own behaviors and actions, so we must lead by example. In times of crisis, we are under the microscope more than ever, and how we handle ourselves sets the tone for how others will handle themselves when times get tough.

During the pandemic, we all immediately recognized that the stakes were unbelievably high. Along with all the firefighting to keep people safe and keep things running, we also had to focus on preserving our cultures so that our remote companies didn’t fall apart.

I shudder even now remembering the horrible uncertainty of spring 2020. I don’t know about you, but despite my best intentions and strongest desire to lead by example, the cracks began to show. I said things in anger. I was short with people. I didn’t listen because I was busy multitasking while someone on the other end of the phone was in pain.

No number of Zoom happy hours was going to fix these cultural missteps. Be honest with yourself. How many times did you say or do the wrong thing this past year when you were stressed and stretched to the absolute limit? If you are like me, it was more often than you’d like. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Overall, I’m sure you did pretty darn well and led your company out of crisis. But now ask yourself this. How many times did you genuinely apologize for your mistakes? Not “Sorry, but … ” Not sorry with excuses. Just ,“Sorry, I should have done better.”

Here’s the thing. I hate apologizing. It makes me feel defensive, shameful, like I‘m not in charge and, worst of all, it reminds me that I didn’t do the one thing I was working so hard to do — lead by example. I failed.

But it’s a paradox. Saying sorry is potentially more positive for your culture than if you had never messed up in the first place. This came into clear relief during this pandemic when I sincerely apologized to a colleague, saying, “I ignored everyone in that meeting because I felt that my other work was more important. I was wrong. I violated our company’s values. And I’m very sorry.”

My employee responded frankly. “Yes, it was bad, and it felt really bad for me. But you know what? I do that sometimes, too, and I really need to pay more attention and show more respect to people in my meetings.”

And there’s the heart of it. I failed, but I led by example by owning my bad behavior and holding myself accountable to our shared values. No one is perfect — particularly during a crisis. Accepting our human frailties with humility and sincere regret is a powerful way to preserve and build your leadership and culture in trying times.

Apologies show you care, make you human, and ultimately show that you aren’t above the law (or cultural norms in your workplace). You hold yourself to the same standards you expect of others.

In unprecedented times, setting the ultimate precedent by saying, “I’m sorry,” is the best way we can lead by example when we falter. That’s courageous leadership. And it’s good for your company and your culture.

Ethan Karp is President and CEO of MAGNET: The Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network.