The power of saying you’re sorry

Early in my career, I worked with a finance manager who, although highly competent, was a bit temperamental at times. I’d often walk away from interactions charged with negative energy that took some time to shake off, and I found myself developing avoidance behaviors on issues that really needed to be shared.

Following one particularly negative exchange, the manager came down to my office and simply said, “Dan, I want you to know I’m sorry for how I just came off. I know I have a tendency to be negative at times. I’m working on it.” We hugged, exchanged encouraging words and that was that.

In the years that followed, we had a lot of difficult conversations, but they were always shrouded in the prevenient grace that exists between two people who know that, even when they fall short of who they want to be, they are both committed to good intentions for one another. Through that relationship, I came to see that there is a bedrock of goodwill that can only be formed when people are willing to seek forgiveness and become partners in their journey toward the best possible version of themselves.

Of course, there will be people in your life who simply refuse to apologize for anything. If they are in positions of power, the charade can last for years. Those people will fail to gain the trust of the people who work with and for them because no one can relax around someone who refuses to admit they are wrong. When there is no reciprocity in the concept of repentance, there is not reciprocity in the notion of redemption.

Are you someone who has a hard time admitting when you’re wrong? When was the last time you said “I’m sorry” to an employee, boss or spouse?

As a leader, you are responsible for setting the tone for the possibility of redemption in the culture of your organization and with those outside. One of the greatest gifts you can give to your people is the example of humility shown in an earnest apology. Expressing regrets, being vulnerable and making amends, are qualities of healing and whole people. So often in relationships, and paradoxically where positions of power are concerned, submission is the only pathway to victory. It is the higher, more noble path.

Never let an important relationship end in resentment and negativity if it doesn’t have to. Don’t let good people walk out the door with a hardened affirmation of their worst thoughts of you. Don’t qualify or issue halfhearted apologies. Your reputation and the reputation of your organization are more important than your ego, so work to stuff it down.

Whatever the issue, no matter if you are right or wrong, sometimes the best you can do is say, “I’m sorry.” If people decide to take their business or support elsewhere out of dissatisfaction with you, remaining open hearted toward them, even if it hurts, may be the door that leads them back. The choice, as always, is up to you.

Daniel Flowers is president and CEO of the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank. Under Dan’s direction, the Food bank has been consistently named one of the NorthCoast 99 Great Workplaces and the Feeding America Food Bank of the Year in 2012, the highest honor achievable by food banks.