Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Once upon a time, a client of mine was going through a major change process. Things were rushed, communication wasn’t done right, words were misspoken, and people were hurt.

The staff needed an apology. But they didn’t get one. The leader thought it would make him look weak. “And besides, it wasn’t intentional” he told me, “so why apologise?”

I said it isn’t about who is right or wrong. It’s about acknowledging pain, demonstrating empathy, showing the humility to admit difficult situations or our own error, and ultimately, about building trust. And if you must avoid admitting culpability, at the least you can say that you’re sorry for how people feel. 

I pointed to just one research paper among many that says even superfluous apologies (“I’m sorry about the rain!”) increase trust in the speaker. He didn’t agree, and didn’t apologise.

The song really is right, sorry seems to be the hardest word:

It would be easy to think that this is just the sign of an intransigent man. Yet ironically, when I later met this leader over a drink, he said sorry to a waitress for not handing her his cup when she came to clear the table. In fact, he is a compassionate man whose favourite recent book is Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead.

And let me go on to point the finger at myself. It was only last month that I was running a client workshop were one participant, tears in their eyes, said that I was harshly criticising them. I really felt I hadn’t, and when I checked with others in the room, they agreed I hadn’t. Did I say sorry for what it appeared I hadn’t done, or ‘be strong’? Oh – how subtly it creeped on me! The same mindset as my client who couldn’t apologise was upon me. I reminded myself that it wasn’t about being right or wrong. It was about caring. I apologised, as did they. 

Then, as I was writing this, a third example came into my inbox: the digital bank Monzo apologising for not getting their Plus offering right

You see, the way people engage with anything – brands, leaders, employers, banks – works in the same manner that people engage with human relationships. And what we all expect from our friends is that they will say sorry if we are hurt, even if it wasn’t their fault – because the point is that our friendship is far more important than ‘looking strong’. And if it isn’t, then I imagine we’d be re-thinking that friendship. 

So the way to engage, knowing the psychology, is to treat people like a friend would treat them. Admittedly it has to be at scale in the case of Monzo, but saying sorry is surely one easily scalable tactic. 

Now I’m no world leader. But it strikes me that in a world where our national leaders often disengage and refuse to apologise, it would go a long way to get back to our humanity and say sorry – even superfluously if that’s all they can muster for now – and engage people in conversation once again.

Because that’s the point. Continuing the conversation, rather than disengaging. People forget what was said, but they remember how they felt.

So let us all say we’re sorry, let people feel the feeling of care, and move forward.

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