How to Apologize Without Looking Weak

Imagine a world in which no one ever said sorry. If you pictured a society composed entirely of stodgy businessmen, frowning and adjusting their ties, it wouldn’t be strange. The debate over whether or not to apologize will probably rage on for as long as there are corporations and leaders to run them. On the pro-apology side, you have experts who say being accountable is not only correct, but ultimately more productive; on the con side, you have the folks who feel that saying “I’m sorry” is tantamount to announcing weakness, possibly in front of the board. So who’s right?


(Photo Credit: Joshua Earle/Unsplash)

As it usually goes with these kinds of questions, the answer is: it depends.

“We think we want apologies from those who have harmed us,” writes Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, at Fortune. “Yet we instinctively respect strength, confidence, and assurance. And throughout, our ability to forecast our true reactions to situations is imperfect.”

Pfeffer uses two of the more famous corporate apologies in recent years to illustrate his point: Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs and Tony Hayward of BP. Blankfein steadfastly denied that his company did anything wrong, looking puzzled when a Senate committee demanded an explanation for his employer’s actions during the financial crisis; Hayward apologized during BP’s hearing before a House of Representatives committee, but didn’t take responsibility.

“Most viewers like Hayward’s contrition and are repelled by Blankfein’s arrogance,” Pfeffer writes. “But Blankfein still has his job (and some large bonuses) and Hayward is long gone.”

Why? Because we tend to perceive people who express anger as having more status than those who express sadness. In other words: an abject apology might come off as an admission of weakness.

Does This Mean We Shouldn’t Apologize?

Absolutely not. But, it does mean that we should apologize with care.

Of course, it helps that most of us reading this post probably aren’t charged with heading up a multinational conglomerate accused of wrongdoing. But, status is important, whether we’re leading a team of three people or a department or a company.

It’s easier to apologize well if you keep a few things in mind:

1. The goal of exercise. Why do we apologize in our personal lives? To show the people we love (or at least like) that we care about having hurt them. At work, however, the reasons for apologizing are slightly different and possibly more complex: to restore the social equilibrium, but also to identify the cause of a problem and to begin to fix it.

2. The potential pitfalls – for you and for your team. If you’re a leader, apologizing is fraught with peril, because it’s not just your status on the line, but that of your team or organization.

“In saying sorry, a leader is potentially undercutting employees’ feelings of pride in the institution and their attachment to the company and its work,” Pfeffer explains.

That means choosing your words and tone carefully. Think accountability and responsibility, not shame or embarrassment. You’re not begging for forgiveness, but owning up to your mistakes and making a plan to avoid them in the future.

3. Understanding that strong people are secure, and weak people easily threatened. By definition, someone who is being defensive is not coming from a position of strength.

“We lose respect for a leader when he or she fails to acknowledge a mistake,” writes Scott Belsky at 99u. “What we want to see in our leaders is a sense of self-awareness and honesty. Personally, I gain confidence when one of my colleagues says, ‘Gosh, I don’t know what I was thinking, sorry about [fill in the blank].’ It makes me feel like the mistake or false assumption is now fully understood and owned. It makes me feel safe.”

As Pfeffer points out, even Steve Jobs apologized from time to time – for example, when an iteration of the iPhone had issues with its antenna. The difference is, he used the apology as an opportunity, reminding his listeners about the iPhone’s dominance on the market (3 million phones sold, at that point, and only 0.55 percent of buyers complaining), even as he took responsibility for the problem and offered a solution in the form of a free case. Now that’s an apology that’s anything but weak.

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