How to Apologise and Admit When you’re Wrong

Jody Goldsworthy, Leadership Consulting Partner at New Street Consulting Group, looks at how CEOs can effectively apologise and move on from mistakes and causing offence to focus on repairing relationships.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Elon Musk is renowned for many attributes – apologising is not one of them. The entrepreneur’s flair for disruptive thinking goes beyond his pioneering ideas. It’s a defining part of his personality and leadership style, and he isn’t a person who tends to back down, making it particularly newsworthy when he does. 

This was the case recently when Musk publicly apologised for mocking a former Twitter employee’s disability. There’s no question that making an apology was the right thing to do. However, even when the difference between right and wrong is so stark, it doesn’t always make apologising a straightforward process. It becomes even more complex for CEOs who may be concerned about an apology undermining their position of authority and credibility. 

Making a sincere apology requires ownership, empathy, and progression. 

Owning your apology 

The most respected and admired CEOs will often be well-regarded as being informed and decisive. They won’t be afraid to make the big decisions and will do so with authenticity, demonstrating clear ownership of the choices they are making and why. This helps to create reassurance and instil confidence amongst employees and other stakeholders and garners valuable trust that creates the all-important buy-in required to help deliver a CEO’s strategy. The same approach is required when making an apology.

A leader should be prepared to take ownership of their apology, avoiding any scapegoating, and attempting to hide behind any attempted justification for problems or mistakes. An explanation about wrongdoings or failures can be useful, but leaders shouldn’t overdo this. Not only are a CEO’s reasons for acting a certain way sometimes confidential, oversharing risks being viewed as making excuses, which is likely to do more damage, rather than helping remedy a situation. An apology should be the start of making amends, meaning it’s important that a leader clearly admits a mistake and then looks forward.

It’s about them, not you 

For an apology to be sincere and to effectively start restoring a situation, it must be about the people who have been offended. Once an individual has said sorry, the situation should be no longer about themself and must focus on those impacted by mistakes or wrongdoings.

An apology should show empathy by demonstrating an understanding of the problems caused and acknowledging how another party has been affected. Some of the most successful CEOs are those who see the world through the eyes of the markets they’re aiming to serve, the stakeholders they represent and the teams they lead. This outward-looking view is critical to the sincerity of an apology and how it resonates with the audiences a leader is aiming to make amends with.

An empathetic apology helps a leader to convey exactly why they are apologising and to genuinely show they are saying sorry for the issues caused, instead of being perceived to be trying to save their own skin, appease their guilt, avoid legal action, or salvage their reputation.

True empathy can help to minimise shame, reduce the prolonging of anger amongst affected parties and enable a leader to focus on moving forwards more quickly. It’s important to note though that an insincere, “I’m sorry you feel that way”, without accountability for having caused negative feelings, risks causing further psychological harm to a recipient.

A progressive apology

Outlining constructive action is a positive way of showing that lessons have been learnt and moving an apology from offending behaviour to repairing relationships. People are often more interested in how a leader will make a situation right and will judge them more for this, than the initial problem they are saying sorry for.

Apologising CEOs must be prepared to outline a definitive plan of action for how they will correct a situation, with tangible steps that link back to the root of what went wrong. It’s then critical that they hold themselves accountable for ensuring changes are made and solutions implemented.

Fixing an issue is the most measurable part of an apology and an acid test for how sorry a leader genuinely is. Addressing matters by making amends will help a CEO to bounce back from a problem with humility and create an opportunity for them to re-engage the people offended by the actions they are apologising for.


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