by Joseph Grenny
Most of what has been written about apologies is fundamentally manipulative, because the focus is on technique — on applying psychology to extract forgiveness from others, as in: “What do I need to say in order to get my boss/child/neighbor to trust me again?” This view of apologies is one of today’s most pernicious assaults on trust.
At its best, an apology is the fruit of personal change, not a tool for interpersonal persuasion.
Consider this example from my own personal experience: It had been over a decade since I bombed a presentation. I thought I knew myself and my material enough that it would never happen again. And yet, I recently gave a presentation that… well… bombed.
It was to a group that I really care about. And somehow a couple of things I did or said hit people the wrong way. Some in the group found one or more of my examples offensive. Some were upset because I covered material they had seen previously. It was an agonizing plane trip home.
As I sat on the plane reflecting on the session, I began to write a note to express my feelings to the team that had hired me. It was a humbling experience.
Here are the thoughts that governed the note I wrote:
Get your motive right. An apology can be about one of two things: restoring trust or restoring integrity. In my mind, if your goal is to simply restore trust, your motive is manipulative. When we fall short of others’ expectations, trust is ruptured. Others can either lose trust in our motives, our abilities, or both. They either conclude that we don’t care about their interests, or that we aren’t competent enough to secure their interests.
For example, following my recent presentation, my client may have concluded, “Joseph doesn’t know how to connect with our managers.” (We no longer trust his competence.) Or they may have suspected, “Joseph was just phoning it in. He didn’t care enough about us to properly prepare.” (We no longer trust his motives.)
This is the relationship problem a failure creates. But there is a deeper problem as well—an integrity problem. An integrity problem is a gap between how I perform and who I aspire to be. My goal is to improve lives and organizations. I fell short of my own desires that day. That’s an integrity problem.
Far too often, experts offer advice on the mechanics of an apology as though the primary problem we need to solve is the relationship problem. In so doing, they entirely bypass the integrity problem. They treat an apology like money in an overdrawn bank account—if trust is low, we must simply deposit some more in order to get back in the black. This is a fundamentally unscrupulous and manipulative form of apology. It is an attempt to appropriate trust without earning it.
I wanted my primary consideration on my painful plane trip home to be the integrity problem. I decided that I should spend most of my time reflecting on how I fell short of who I wanted to be, not just on what the client wanted me to do. Only then could I issue an apology that deserves consideration. Apologies that “work” are those that deserve to work because they are issued from a sincere feeling of remorse and resolution. Your motive shouldn’t be to regain trust, but to deserve it. We should spend less time worrying about how to give an apology, and more time reflecting on how we can merit forgiveness.
As the plane took off, I began to see ways I had become careless and inattentive to special sensitivities of those I teach. I had allowed years of generally rave reviews to distract me from the small number whose needs I had not been properly considering for some time.
Absorb the learning. I don’t deserve others’ trust until I deserve my own. Once my heart is in the right place, my reflection should focus on new commitments I will make to both right the past wrong and prevent future ones. I must own up to any damage I created. I must listen deeply to others to learn the ways their expectations were not met. I can be honest with them about my own views as well—but my primary focus must be to enter their world and see my behavior from their perspective. Then, I must resolve to improve my motives and abilities so that in the future, I will be the kind of person I want to be. As my flight progressed, I reflected on what my client had told me. I set aside my defensiveness and looked at the event from their perspective. As a result, I resolved—among other things—to avoid humor that could be hurtful to anyone. And I committed to be more explicit in setting expectations with those I serve.
Issue the apology—for the right reason. The best apology is a glimpse into your own accountability. It affords others an intimate and sincere view of your internal moral conversation—how you respond to their feelings and how you judge your own actions. Its goal is not to “get” something from the other person. That decision is up to them. Some people forgive slowly and some readily. You can’t control that. All you can control is the speed with which you regain your own integrity.
My communication to my client began, “My goal yesterday was to help you with the life-saving work you are doing. And not only did I not help, it appears that with some of your managers, I have hurt the effort. I am sorry…”
The purpose of an apology is not to restore trust, but to confirm to others that we deserve it.
Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. His work has been translated into 28 languages, is available in 36 countries, and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. He is the cofounder of VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.