Why Sorry is the Hardest Word

September 9, 2015

By Melanie Lockwood Herman

This weekend I had an opportunity to watch a program titled “Cardinal Seán” featured in a re-run of the television program, 60 Minutes. The subject of the program was Cardinal Seán O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston. One of the most compelling moments in the broadcast was a video clip from Cardinal Seán’s installation ceremony in Boston in 2003, where he stated, “…I again ask for forgiveness for all the harm done to young people by clergy, religious and hierarchy.”

The subject of saying sorry is among the featured topics in the September 2015 edition of the Harvard Business Review. The authors of “The Organizational Apology,” explain that human beings are “psychologically predisposed to find reasons (or excuses) to delay or avoid saying “I am sorry.” Two of the common reasons leaders find “sorry” to be the hardest word are:

  • Doing so makes us uncomfortable and vulnerable, and “beholden, at least temporarily, to the other party”
  • Offering an apology on the organization’s behalf somehow feels unjust when the mistake may have been caused by a single employee, or a small group within a larger organization, or due to circumstances beyond the organization’s control

Making Sorry Stick

The HBR article offers a roadmap to help determine when an apology is due, and also how to prepare and deliver an appropriate apology. Some of the most helpful tips for nonprofit leaders include:

  • Stand in the aggrieved party’s shoes – Rather than resolving to uncover every possible fact, reflect on the perceptions of the party who feels wronged when deciding when and how to apologize.
  • Don’t wait to apologize until after you’ve sorted out the facts – Many overdue apologies stem from the desire of a leader to make sure she has her facts straight. But in many cases, sorting out what went wrong and why takes time. Late apologies don’t carry much meaning.
  • Don‘t wait to fix what needs fixing before you apologize – In an ideal world we would acknowledge our mistakes and explain that the problem has been resolved-in the same message. But that isn’t always possible. Give yourself permission to be sorry before you’ve figured out how to prevent a recurrence of the mistake or offense.
  • Take one for the team – The apology experts emphasize the importance of CEOs stepping up to apologize. When an apology is in order, flex your leadership, not delegation skills.
  • Remember the 4 Cs – The most effective apologies reflect Candor, Contrition (remorse) and the Commitment to Change.
  • Take the Leap – A bonus benefit of apologizing is that it’s easier after you’ve done it a few times. The first time will be rough, but take that leap, and soon you’ll be a pro apologizer who looks forward to the opportunity to demonstrate compassion and humility towards stakeholders.

As uncomfortable as it may be to apologize, it’s the first step in putting a mistake or failure behind you–even if it means setting aside your pride or feeling ‘beholden’ to the recipients of your ‘sorry.’ Your receiver(s) will begin to feel emotional healing, and any threat they perceived will be diminished. Empathetic apologies allow the recipients to begin forgiving the ‘wrongful’ party–whether the wrongdoing is actual or perceived. In the wake of a failure, mistake or crisis at your nonprofit–during moments when you need forgiveness as well as strength from meaningful relationships–start with ‘sorry.’

Melanie Herman is executive director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She welcomes your feedback on this article or questions about risk-aware leadership in the nonprofit sector at Melanie@nonprofitrisk.org or 703.777.3504.