The Elements of Trustworthy Leadership – Mindful Apologies

Article by , January 12, 2022

Problem solving

Understanding Trust

At the core of leadership apologies—whether it is on behalf of the organization or in behalf of the leader—is trust. But here’s the thing: when leaders offer a humble apology, their motivation is not about acquiring trust, it’s about personal change. Great leaders build trust from the inside out.

In the recently published book, The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, Regain It (Public Affairs 2021), authors Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta examine the how and why others—clients, employees, or any stakeholder—make the decision to trust. They begin by defining trust.

The Complexities of Trust

  • Trust is a relationship with three components: the person extending trust, the person receiving trust, and the expected action.
  • Trust occurs in degrees. In our disappointment (or hurt, or anger) it’s easy to forget that trust in not an all or nothing proposition; trust is a spectrum.
  • Trust can be regained. Trust must be earned, typically by listening and responding appropriately.

The Elements of Trustworthy Leadership

  • Competence: While this includes managing uncertainty and navigating external circumstances to reach goals and objectives, more important is keeping promises and commitments.
  • Motives: how do you serve the interests of others? How do you balance this with self-interests?
  • Means: how do you reach or exceed your goals? Trustworthy leadership demonstrates fairness with information, distribution, procedures, and relationships.
  • Accountability: As a leader, how do you demonstrate responsibility for your decisions and actions?

Leadership Apologies

When an apology is in order, how do leaders in your organization apologize?

We can’t help but notice when it goes poorly. Sometimes, it’s a matter of people (or a person) not ready or able to forgive. And that’s understandable, especially when there is no attempt at restorative justice.

Other times, apologies go sideways when egos get in the way. At best, it falls short as a polished explanation; the apology is an attempt to justify the behavior. This often results in the erosion of trust.

Great leaders—whether they are seasoned executives or untitled leaders—know how to humbly apologize. They understand that mistakes happen and that they are not infallible. Real leaders hold themselves accountable and make amends.

The Humble Apology

A person offering a humble apology acknowledges an offense has occurred, seeks to understand the harm that has been caused, and identifies how it will correct the mistake and avoid making the same mistake in the future.

Unfortunately, even seasoned executives can get this wrong. The fear of losing credibility stops them from doing the very thing that will actually help restore their credibility: an admission of wrong-doing. The irony is that in doing so, they can begin to move on and repair trust.

What’s Your Motivation?

As Joseph Grenny, author of Crucial Conversations (McGraw-Hill Education; 3rd edition, 2021) sees it, an apology is motivated by either restoring integrity or restoring trust. In the 2016 Harvard Business Review article Grenny shares how trust is lost when our abilities and/or motives fail to meet the expectations of others. This can actually create more than one problem:

  1. Relationship problem: When a leader falls short, they must address what they did and how it affects others, including trust in the leaders’ competence and motives.
  2. Integrity problem: When a leader falls short, they must address who they aspire to be.

The Public Apology

Unfortunately, persons in power often struggle with apologizing. The fear of admitting wrong-doing is often driven by fear of failure, losing esteem, or making matters worse.

Harvard Business Review (2019) published an article that suggests that “sometimes apologizing is not the best strategy.” Based on their analysis of research conducted by several universities, authors Sandra J. Sucher and Shalene Gupta define two categories of mistakes:

  1. Incompetence (i.e. failure of product or service reliability)
  2. Integrity (i.e. failure in acting fairly or responsibly)

These categories and definitions differ from that of Granny, which may explain their analysis: when mistakes result from incompetence, apologies are effective. When mistakes occur as a result of integrity problems, apologies are not effective. They explain that when a leader or organization really did act with integrity, denial is a better strategy.

The Elements of a Public Apology

Genuine public apologies are based on three elements:

  1. Identify what happened and what is happening. Understand what went wrong. If issuing a statement, be factual and disclose errors.
  2. Focus on the person(s) harmed. When making a public apology, make it timely (ASAP) and include details about those affected. The only “I” or “we” statement made should be followed by an expression of sorrow.
  3. Concrete action. Reparations, in the form of change and/or compensation, may be in order. Share what action you will take in the future to prevent further harm.

How Real Leaders Apologize

A real apology is offered in a real-time conversation with the person harmed. Ideally, this is in-person, virtually, or if this is impossible for the person harmed, a phone call. The conversation should occur ASAP, and include four key elements:

  1. Acknowledgement of harm done. Ask questions to understand their perspective. Don’t argue, explain, or rationalize.
  2. Acknowledgement of their feelings and values. Again, ask questions to affirm and encourage them to talk about what is important to them. What do they need?
  3. An expression of empathy. Without humbly stating the impact of your error—how it has affected them—your apology becomes a hollow justification of yourself or your actions.
  4. Acknowledgement of what you will do. Don’t rush to this conclusion. If you will be making your apology public, as the person harmed how they feel about this. Do you have their permission to reveal details about them?

A follow-up letter, email, or direct message/text to the person harmed may be in order. Refrain from using social media to communicate, unless it is part of your public apology. Reiterate a summary of the four key elements to hold yourself accountable.

Dr. Maynard Brusman
Consulting Psychologist & Executive Coach
Trusted Leadership Advisor
Emotional intelligence and Mindful Leadership Consultant
San Francisco Bay Area and Beyond!

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