Made a mistake? Just say sorry

When you’re trying to bring forward controversial yet critical infrastructure, it’s important to apologise if you make a mistake.

How many times over the years have Cabinet Ministers caught up in a controversy been pressured to vacate their post not because of the original error or behaviour, but because of the attempts made to avoid admitting it? Would the calls for their resignation have been as loud had they quickly been open about the facts, showed some genuine remorse and acted with contrition? Probably not.

It’s the same in many businesses, where there’s a culture not of covering-up mistakes but of being afraid to admit to them.

Why?

Well, according to a study by learning provider The Forum Corporation, 71% of business leaders and managers avoid saying sorry in case it makes them look incompetent, and so it’s partly about individual egos.

Businesses are often reluctant to admit mistakes and issue apologies in case it triggers bad publicity or litigation. Or both.

But here’s the thing. People are generally more trusting of you when you hold your hands up and simply say ‘sorry’.

So says a study from Harvard Business School which reveals that a well-timed apology can increase your influence and likeability. ‘Across our studies, we identify significant benefits to apologising,' the researchers conclude. ‘Even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust and liking by saying "I'm sorry"’.

However, it’s not just as simple as saying I’m sorry. Stakeholders that could be affected by your development proposals also need to hear about the lessons you’ve learnt, and about the steps you’re going to take (or have already taken) to prevent a repeat.

How should you apologise for mistakes then?

Ideally, you want to apologise in person and be sincere - show that you are genuinely remorseful. Write to people afterwards to underscore how much you mean it. Empathise - show that you can see it from their point of view. Do it quickly once a mistake has been identified - the longer you leave it, the more people will doubt your authenticity. Explain what happened, why and tell them how you’re fixing it so it can’t happen again. And don’t be forced into it by others - people will find out about your mistakes eventually, and it’s always better to hear it from you first rather than because a campaign group has brought it to the public’s attention.


A case in point

Right now, the charity Oxfam is under fire for the behaviour of some of its past employees and the fact that it appears to have been less than honest about what went on when allegations of inappropriate behaviour first surfaced around seven years ago.

It now faces the prospect of having its government aid funding cut and could also see public donations dry-up too. In an attempt to safeguard its reputation over the years, it may actually have helped to undermine it instead.

The Oxfam leadership would have been better advised to admit the problem early on, be open about what its own internal investigations had found, apologise to the people directly affected and to supporters, and to demonstrate that its governance and safeguarding had been tightened in order to prevent a recurrence.

Onlookers would still be upset by what had happened, but their trust in the institution would potentially have remained intact. Instead, it’s reputation is rapidly unravelling as more and more allegations emerge. Oxfam has a long road ahead to its recovery.

Remember, if you make a mistake, admit to it early, apologise sincerely, show genuine remorse and that you really care, and, crucially, explain how it won’t happen again.