Former President Bill Clinton has made a lot of apologies. His most famous one was for his affair with Monica Lewinsky. He also recently apologized to the entire country of Mexico for the unintended consequences of the war on drugs.
Clinton understands the power of an apology. And if he can do it, so can you.
But many entrepreneurs are hesitant to apologize when they make mistakes. They see apologies as a sign of weakness. In the right situation, however, a heartfelt apology can actually show courage, save a relationship or lead to a new opportunity.
I learned this firsthand after visiting a European nightclub. A woman in my party became intoxicated, made a bit of a scene and was politely asked to leave. The next day, I phoned the establishment’s director to apologize on her behalf. He graciously accepted my apology, and I figured everything was settled. Two months later, the director called me out of the blue and offered me a lucrative business opportunity that involved a large budget and an international launch party with celebrity appearances.
Obviously, my simple apology made a profound impression.
Saying sorry counts
Just as it takes a strong and confident person to wield the reins of a company, it takes strength to apologize when you’re in the wrong. CEOs who are too egotistical to admit fault will never earn the respect of their employees, peers or clients.
An apology also shows that you care. Relationships can make or break a business, no matter the industry. Upset a client, and you could lose an important revenue stream. Hurt an employee’s feelings, and you may find yourself without an integral team member. Indeed, apologies imply empathy: Researchers from the University of Miami have proven that peacemaking efforts can actually heal broken relationships
Certainly not all crises are preventable, but following them up with authentic apologies can help shield your company from the worst of the fallout. Johnson & Johnson proved this during its 1982 Tylenol recall. Marketers had predicted that the brand would never bounce back, but the company’s actions proved otherwise.
Aiming to amend
Even though apologies have many benefits, they can also be double-edged swords. An apology that's not delivered strategically and genuinely can actually do more harm than good. Here are some tips to ensure you use apologies in the right way:
1. Be sincere.
We commonly see sheepish politicians, sports stars and CEOs toss out fake mea culpas. Is anyone really convinced that Anthony Weiner, Alex Rodriguez and Lance Armstrong are sorry for anything other than getting caught? The right apology goes further than just mending past actions -- it builds a new, stronger rapport.
2. Choose the right time and place to apologize.
Make sure you really assess the timing and venue of your apology. Don’t apologize too quickly, and don’t take too long to apologize. You’ll come across as disingenuous. Also, make sure your apology is actually warranted. Apologizing in the wrong situation could lead to increased costs and lost negotiating power and legal ground.
3. Say "sorry" for the way your actions affected others.
Don’t apologize for doing something. Apologize for how it made people feel. Sometimes, apologizing for the act itself can have legal ramifications. Instead, show an understanding of the result. Humans want their feelings to be validated, and showing that you see how they feel will have an immediate impact.
4. End the apology on a positive note.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when apologizing is failing to discuss the learning experience for everyone involved. Stressing this at the end of your apology will bring the parties closer because it shows that you’re thinking long-term.
5. Never apologize for being yourself.
Don’t apologize for turning your phone off at night so you can have dinner with your family or for pursing a hobby on the weekends. You own your business; it doesn’t own you. Also, don’t apologize for making tough -- but necessary -- decisions. It’s your duty to challenge your employees and disagree with clients. Being overly apologetic will weaken your standing in their eyes.
Like Clinton, many of the most powerful men and women in the world recognize that apologies are necessary in certain situations. By adding apologies to your tool belt, your company will be respected for its efforts to make amends.
After all, like me, you never know how far a simple “sorry” might take you.