The Ultimate Workplace Power? When Managers Decide to Apologize

Sorry apology

They weren’t quite sure what to do with it.”

Cheryl chuckled after telling me what happened with her team.

The “it” her team wasn’t quite sure how to deal with was Cheryl telling them she recognized she handled a situation poorly the previous day.

I told them what I had done wrong, what I was thinking that led to my reaction, and how I will do it differently in the future.”

Her team was stunned.

Is this the same boss?

They were stunned because, until recently, Cheryl was not the most respectful, people-oriented boss.

They were also most likely stunned by Cheryl’s display of integrity and humility because they had probably never had a manager acknowledge and apologize for their interpersonal transgression.

Hearing Cheryl’s willingness to self-disclose to her team was especially rewarding because of her previous resistance to the idea. She had previously balked at my suggestion that she tell her team about what managerial areas she was working on improving.

Why tell your team how you’re trying to improve?

I had shared with Cheryl that doing this accomplishes a number of importance objectives for managers who want to boost employee engagement.

Acknowledging that you heard your employees’ feedback, that you took it seriously, and you’re working on it, sends two powerful messages. It communicates:

  1. “I am open to your feedback; your input DOES matter” — Research by Gallup and other organizations shows that when employees believe their manager cares about them and their opinion, it makes a huge difference in their engagement level. Not only does this satisfy an important human need — the need to believe one matters — it also increases the likelihood that employees will voice their concerns in the future, rather than remain silently resentful and disengaged.
  2. “I care about how I treat you, and my impact on you” — In many workplaces, when managers treat employees disrespectfully or manage in unproductive ways, employees realize it’s up to them to make the best of it. When you’re the one with less power, you learn to adapt.

Conversely, when a manager explicitly communicates they care about their impact and hold themselves accountable, it tells employees they are not expected to “suck it up” and simply accept that this is how it is.

That simple demonstration of decency and integrity sends a powerful message to employees about the character of their manager. It also earns major respect and goodwill from employees.

Being vulnerable: Isn’t that a bad thing?

Despite the benefits I articulated, Cheryl remained skeptical of my recommendation.

Ah…that’s being pretty vulnerable isn’t it?”

While I figured I knew the sources of her reluctance, I knew it would be useful for us to talk about the beliefs fueling her fear.

If we didn’t examine them, those same beliefs about power and authority would continue to shape how she handled critical managerial moments of truth in the future.

Opening Pandora’s Box?

Like many managers, Cheryl was concerned that if she acknowledged her management style was less than perfect, it would be seen as weakness, and make it harder to manage (read “control”) her team.

If she revealed what she perceived as a chink in her armor, maybe her team would become more vocal in expressing displeasure and disagreement, and then make her life more difficult.

As part of her case against sharing with her team, Cheryl commented on the fact she had NEVER had a manager do such a thing in her 30 year career. Because she had never witnessed it, she couldn’t even imagine a manager doing this.

In the moment, I didn’t think to share with her how iconic executive coach Marshall Goldsmith actually requires that his C-suite clients do this with people they’ve affected negatively.

I wish I had.

Will you model a better, more respectful way?

“Think of the impact it would have on YOU if YOU had a manager do that with you,” I asked.

“Think of what it would mean to you if a manager cared enough about how he or she affected you. Think of how much you would appreciate it and…how their doing that would make you have even more respect for them.”

By putting herself in her employee’s shoes, Cheryl could recognize both the positive impact of such an admission and the fallacy of her fear about the potential downside.

We also discussed the fact that managerial imperfections don’t exactly go unnoticed by employees. It’s not as if acknowledging an unproductive pattern of behavior to your team will result in “eureka!” comments like:

“Man…now that you mention it… you DO micromanage in a big way. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I hadn’t noticed that before.”

Being vulnerable gives you more power and respect

Acknowledging your imperfections actually garners  even more respect — and power — for  two reasons .When you think of your own experience as an employee, you will recognize immediately how this works.

  1. First, when managers act in ways that obviously fly in the face of Management 101 principles, employees don’t just feel frustrated or angry. They wonder “What’s up with this clown? Doesn’t she get it that she would get way better results out of us if she ______?” Seeing this cluelessness erodes their respect.
  2. Second, because we respect people who admit their mistakes and shortcomings, when a manager does this, they gain more respect. Because most people in positions of power rarely do this, when they do, it makes an indelible impact.

Back to Cheryl’s story…

It was heartwarming to hear Cheryl’s tone of voice when she shared her experience of telling her team she recognized she mishandled the situation. She sounded confident as she stated her belief that sharing what she did with her team didn’t make her look weak or diminish her, but in fact, strengthened her position as a leader.

It was clear that after reflecting on the points discussed above, her view of authenticity and vulnerability had shifted. Because she was willing to step outside of her comfort zone, she could see the impact being authentic and open with her team could have.

How you can apply this

Next time you attend management training or a leadership conference, take notes on what areas you need to work on. Then, have an “I went to a seminar” talk with your team.

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It might sound something like:

Hey…you know I went to that management seminar last week. I wanted to let you know about a couple of takeaways I left with — things I am going to be working on. One big one is realizing I do way too much pointing out what needs to be fixed and not enough acknowledging the really great things you all do. It’s not that I don’t notice them, it’s because I get too preoccupied to remember to mention that I noticed. I realize how important it is to let you know how much I value and appreciate it when you go the extra mile or really hit it out of the park with a project. So, I’m going to be working on being more conscious of acknowledging those situations.

The other thing that really hit me is how I need to back off with the micromanaging. No one on this team is performing in any way that warrants me constantly checking in on what you’re doing or your progress, so I need to chill out on that.

So I’m telling you this so you know what I’ll be working on and hopefully you will let me know if I backslide…

Also, if you notice situations where I did the new and improved response, I would appreciate your letting me know, so I remember to do more of that. Also, I will be checking in about this in a month or so, to ask for feedback on how you see me doing in these areas.”

You can also use this article as an icebreaker. You can share it with your team and then share what areas you realize you need to work on, and ask for feedback. While they might be reluctant to give you feedback in the beginning, if you demonstrate your sincerity by implementing the changes and checking in with them over time, they will begin to see that you mean it.

The difference it can make

Years ago, a manager in an ongoing management development program shared how he noticed a huge difference in his team after he shared with them what he was working on because of the series. He also asked them for feedback. Doing this didn’t just provide him with useful feedback.

Because he demonstrated openness and interest in their feedback, they became far more active and engaged. Rather than simply let him do all the thinking and generating ideas for improvement, they started showing initiative, bringing ideas to him about how they could improve processes and the customer experience they delivered.

That simple act of openness and vulnerability helped shift his team from a passive, mildly disengaged team to an eager, “How can we provide more value?” kind of a team.

If you are willing to be open in the ways described in this article, you will open the doors to the kind of unguarded, candid relationships with your employees that lead to engaged employees and high performing teams.