Everyone knows someone who just cannot admit they’re wrong. If you’re unable to think of someone, it’s probably you.
I heard a fantastic and incredibly insightful idea: the three hardest words to say are not, “I love you,” but “I was wrong.” It was worth consideration in length rather than a fleeting “Oh wow, that’s deep” thought. What those words represent are the current state of a deeper connection to oneself. There’s vulnerability in it and in that vulnerability, there’s a healthy relationship with one’s self-worth. As a leader, it’s necessary to show vulnerability because it shows that you trust others. It also shows you are human just like everyone else and that the important part of making a mistake is learning from it.
For semantics sake, we need some solid definitions. To admit wrongdoing is not necessarily the same as being sorry. Feeling sorry implies a sense of regret or compunction, which is beyond the scope of this article. I’ll be addressing better alternatives here.
Therefore, “an apology” would be acknowledgement of and a belief that there was a better alternative you were aware of or could have been aware of with some reasonable amount of thought. Put a simpler way, you knowingly chose to act in a negative way when you knew there was a positive way.
This is your brain evaluating your action as being subpar. It can come before or after provocation from an someone else. Without this part, you’re just placating someone who is upset with what you did or said. Ever receive an apology that sounded contrived? It lacked the Internal Acknowledgement that gives the External Communication its meaning and gives Internal Learning its context. If you believe you owe an apology for something but are struggling with this part, you need to separate yourself from your action, especially if you owe it to a subordinate. You must realize that you are not wrong, the action is. More on this later.
This is the physical conveyance of your apology. It’s important to communicate the acknowledgement because no one is a mind-reader. You might hear something like, “You know I didn’t mean that” or “He may not say it, but he’s sorry.” Those are platitudes that give the apologizer an easy out. If apologizing were easy, why would there be such a stigma around doing it? Exactly, it’s hard because it changes us. The External Communication can come in many forms, but the method you choose should be meaningful to the person receiving it. For example, if your coworker likes getting project details face-to-face in lieu of emails, don’t send your apology digitally. Want to know what they prefer? Ask. If you explain why, they’ll understand and they’ll tell you the answer.
This is a key ingredient often left out of the typical apology. It’s the meat of the sandwich. The learning portion of the apology signifies real reflection on both the action in question and the results the came of it. If you apologize and mean it, but then fail to think about whatever it was, you might as well have short-term memory. A big caution here: You’re not creating a rule out of this one action; remember, you have to separate yourself from the action. The goal is to incorporate a set of questions into your reflection, such as: “What made me choose this action over a better one? Why did I not think longer about what to choose? Why did I want a faster conclusion to the situation?” Really dive into what it was that led you there. The deeper you dive, the better you’ll understand yourself. Why is this all important? Let’s say you completed just the other two parts of the apology and the other person said, “It’s too late” or “Your apology is worth nothing.” Heard something like that before and thought, “Fine, be that way”? Without the Internal Learning part, you’re stuck in limbo trying to appease the person but never being able to do so. Whatever way the other person reacts has to do with their ability to accept and move on; this means it’s their choice, over which you have no control. Where you do have control is the Internal Learning.
But does the order matter? Is one more important than the others? What if I don’t think I’m wrong?
I described these three parts as though they were all independent steps from one another, but really Internal Acknowledgement should come first. You can’t erase an empty apology and you certainly aren’t learning much if you don’t actually think you’re wrong. As humans, we connect ourselves with our actions, so when we have to admit those actions were anything less than perfect, it reflects poorly on our self-worth. When we have to detach ourselves from our actions, we get separation anxiety.
“But who am I, if not my actions?”
Good question, reader. Are you ready for this? You’re a combination of thoughts that you attach yourself to, selected from a never-ending stream of thoughts. Enough of a certain type of thoughts and you create actions. Let’s look an analogy: One person is an individual. Get enough persons together and you’ve got a crowd. Each one of those persons does not become a crowd though, do they? They’re still each an individual person. And similarly, your thoughts stay thoughts and you stay you.
New thoughts create new actions and you create new thoughts almost once per second (that’s around 150-200 thoughts in just the time you’ve been reading this article). Occasionally, you have a unique thought and another thought follows at some point, saying, “That was a good one! Let’s keep that one and make it a part of us.” So when I say you are not your actions and thus you cannot be wrong, I mean one of your thoughts created an action plan and implemented it; but if you had not created and implemented it, that thought would not be wrong, it would just be a thought. I’m sure you’ve had a negative thought, followed by, “No, I can’t do that.” That’s you negating an action option without implementation.
Remember, when you’re apologizing, you’re just saying one of the actions you chose was not as good as an alternative you could have created. If YOU as a person were wrong, then everything you did would be wrong because a wrong person can only create wrong actions. A thinking human, however, can create right or wrong actions. Being able to admit you’re wrong is a necessity for a great leader.
These three parts essentially come down to Admit, Convey, Reflect. To my knowledge, no one has ever died from including them all so I’m willing to bet you won’t either.