It’s one of the most common phrases heard among managers and leaders of all levels: “I’m sorry” Some use the phrase more often than others and most use it far more frequently than they mean. But, what does it mean really when a leader says “I’m sorry”? The truth is it could mean a multitude of things. The challenge for leaders when one phrase could mean many things is that instead of saying what we really mean or conveying a productive message, we end up doing more damage. The list of reasons for not saying I’m sorry is long and the three listed in this Monday Moment may, in fact be life changing, or at least habit changing. Liberate yourself from confusion, poor perceptions and hits on your own confidence, by saying what you really mean for one, if not all of these three reasons.
You’re not sorry. This does not mean you may not feel remorse for what you’ve done or regret for how your actions have impacted another. Defined by Dictionary.com, two of the choices for the word Sorry are 2)regrettable or deplorable; and 4) wretched, poor, useless, pitiful. In point of fact, no matter who you are, you are not those definitions of sorry. Yet, when you say “I am” in front of any other word, your brain takes this as a directive for how to conduct future actions. Repeated utterances of I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry can take quite a hit on one’s internal dialogue, self- image, and confidence. You are not sorry. You likely wish it had not happened or wish you knew what to do now that it has or wish it didn’t have the impact you see the action has created. For the brain, quite simply, saying I am sorry and then saying I am a good leader is confusing. Asking for forgiveness because even good leaders make mistakes, is not.
For a significant population of leaders, sorry, to quote an old Elton John song, does not seem to be the hardest word. Instead this poor excuse for a heartfelt apology is tossed out like today’s junk mail. Little thought goes into making the statement. The words come out before that leader even notices it. It’s an easy out. The words are easy to say and yet the truth is, most of the time, we’re instead, not willing to change. Consider this: if sorry has become familiar, perhaps it’s time to meet change. Are you saying sorry to each and every little thing when instead the truth is that you wish you could change the actions for which you’re apologizing, but don’t know how? Are you saying sorry because changing bad news is beyond your control? In most cases, it is not an apology they need but actual leadership. Learn a new skill to approach, handle, guide, or manage things differently. Find a new solution to circumvent, overcome, break down, or build new ways, to achieve something. Sorry is easy. Change is courageous and contagious. Real leaders don’t stand in sorry, they swim in the sea of change. Stop apologizing for your choice to stay the same or being unwilling to make a change. The perception of a leader who makes consistent declarations of being sorry is that they really aren’t in fact, apologetic about anything. They’re simply hoping that saying it will make someone feel better or be less frustrated.
If you say “I’m sorry” to a colleague, team member, boss, or employee, are you really looking for forgiveness? If so, then perhaps say “please forgive me for…” Is that not a more accurate reflection of the state you wish were present? Or are you after something else? Perhaps what is wanted when a leader apologizes for a mistake he or she has made or a faux pas committed, is instead absolution for their embarrassment. Then say “I’m embarrassed. Please excuse me. I’m sorry appears to be a catch all and is no more effective than a leader saying “go do that” without ever clarifying what that is or how it should be done and by when exactly. Non clear directions from a leader result in non-fulfilling actions from their team members. Ask yourself, what are you really looking for? Are you really seeking a better feeling or better understanding? What do you want them to do when you apologize? Then ask for that.
Navigating through the Atlanta airport last week, I heard no less than twelve people inside of a half hour, say “I’m sorry”. Were they talking to employees? Most were not. They were apologizing for having arrived at the same destination the same time as another person. They were apologizing for not having seen a queue of people. They were apologizing for being in a rush and speeding past slower walkers. As a culture, we’ve taught people to be polite by constantly denigrating themselves for simply not knowing or being willing to do different or better. Stop saying, “I’m sorry”. It’s easy, yes, but You’re Not…Sorry…Are You? , the three headers to each of these liberating reasons, will help you to remember what you really mean, what changes you might want to make, and how to speak with clarity so that others get what you really want or need, so they might actually give it to you in a way that helps you and the team succeed.
Monica Wofford, CSP is a leadership development specialist who coaches, consults with, and speaks to leaders of all levels, building their skills, emotional intelligence and authenticity. Author of Contagious Leadership and Make Difficult People Disappear, Monica may be reached at www.ContagiousCompanies.com, www.MonicaWofford.com or by calling 1-866-382-0121.