The Apologetic Leader
Is it a sign of weakness when a leader apologizes?
It’s a question that’s come up quite a bit lately in conversations I’ve had with managers. Certainly enough has happened in all business sizes since 2008 that would warrant a thoughtful consideration to the question. In my conversations with managers, the question is met with hesitancy: an eager “I don’t want to go there” response.
Let’s add a little context.
In the times leading up to and after the Great Recession, managers had to make unpopular decisions. Those tough decisions were necessary to ensure the business was positioned to continue to deliver on its promise to keep employees employed, customers happy, and shareholders smiling. In many cases, those decisions came down to managing risks: protect profit or people. The familiar answer? Protect profit.
The unintended consequence in the conundrum is a crappy work environment. To protect profit, employees had to be fired. Expenses were, and still are, brutally managed. Endless fire drills that communicated confusion instead of a cogent strategy forward still dominate meetings and employees’ work load and attention.
So, when tough decisions are made out of survival should a manager apologize for the crappy work environment? One could argue that the crappy work environment already existed and merely exacerbated by the presenting problem. It would be easy to assume a position, dig in the heels and answer “No!”
If we are to learn anything from the last 4 years, I’d hope it is this: we can’t keep treating people like replaceable units on a factory line.
Despite the logic and necessity for the dramatic changes, cuts, even directives, when we make a mess of things we apologize and move on. It’s not about power. It’s about respect. It’s an acknowledgement that those tough decisions made life hell for everyone. It’s a clear signal of “I get it.” It’s seeing employees as people with lives outside of work.
We can’t conveniently overlook the outcomes of our management decisions when it’s uncomfortable. That’s so 2008. An apology followed by actions that signal it’s time to get on with rebuilding, repairing, and growing the business is worth the risk. People are worth it.
Graphic by Shawn Murphy