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The Power of an Apology

Last Friday was a rough day for me and my team.

A few days prior, we held our annual training event. We bring every manager, supervisor, and coordinator in our company (about 160 people) to an off-site location for a day of education and motivation. Long story short, we overlooked a couple of very key details in the planning of this event, which led to some very negative feelings about the message delivered by the one presenter, and about my team as the party responsible for putting the event on. The attendees felt like we had hung them out to dry.

As we came to the realization that the situation was largely of our own making, our team sat down to discuss our next steps. It went without saying that we had the best intentions of the event, but unfortunately the details we overlooked caused the event to be received very negatively. At the end of the day, our good intentions really didn't matter. We had dropped the ball. The only way forward was to table our egos and start to work on making things right.

We spent most of the day on Friday meeting with our senior leaders, making apology phone calls to our general managers, and crafting and distributing an apology letter to all our attendees. It was a long day. And just today, we met with our managers in person, and discussed how we can rebound and move forward from this. As difficult an experience as this was, I was more disheartened as we were that what should have been a very empowering training day had turned into a negative experience for our managers.

I think the most impressive and humbling part of this experience for me, is the grace that we received from our managers when we contacted them to apologize. It reminded me that I work with some truly remarkable people, people who are ready to forgive, and to give you the benefit of the doubt when things don't go according to plan. Allowing myself and my team a bit of credit, we were very deliberate in making sure that our apology was genuine and complete. Going into this situation trying to soft-pedal our responsibility would only have destroyed our credibility and exasperated their anger. In order for an apology to be effective, it has to have 3 things.

  1. Acknowledgement that a mistake was made. It sounds common sense, but a common stumbling point is an apology without acknowledging what actually happened. Nothing screams lip service more than a generic apology. Be specific about what went wrong.

  2. Genuine remorse and empathy. No back-door apologies like "I'm sorry you're upset." Whoever you are talking to will tune out almost immediately after hearing this, and no matter what else you have to say, it won't make an impact on them. Take ownership of what happened.

  3. Restitution. Steps 1 and 2 are all for naught if you don't learn from the mistake and commit to making it right. Now, sometimes you can't change what has already happened. That's just the way things go. But you can still commit to doing it better next time.

I'm a firm believer that we learn more from mistakes than we do from successes. And as I reflected on this series of events over the next few days, it reminded me of one immutable truth: it's how we respond when things go wrong that reveals the kind of person we are. These events test our self-awareness, our relationships, and most of all, our resilience. There are times that we need to look someone right in the eyes and say "I messed up, and I'm sorry."

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