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Apologizing – A Powerful Skill for Agile Leaders

  • 12 March 2015
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

As a leader in an Agile organization, your behavior has a profound effect in the workplace. Do you want to embody great leadership to elevate your organization's performance? Beware of being too Agile and pushing solely for results. But if you do, be ready to add an apology to your leadership toolkit. By OCAI online-partner Daniel Sloan.

Once upon a time, there was a young and promising professional that received a promotion from worker to manager. As part of his rapid ascent into the management ranks, he was now expected to lead teams to high levels of performance using his deep expertise, strong work ethic and energetic demeanor. He was thrust into complex projects to drive results. Some of these projects were quite challenging - many teams, enormous complexity, schedule demands, and other elements that we see in these pressure cookers. Perhaps you're living in one of these right now?

This young manager showed tremendous determination and a strong sense of purpose to deliver results. He lived in the details daily and worked incredibly long hours. Under immense pressure, he would insert himself into struggling teams to solve problems and get the teams back on track. He responded to emails in the middle of the night and hoped that others would follow suit. The expectation was that if he ‘led by example’ others would respond and behave with the same level of focus, dedication and sacrifice for the greater good. And this in turn would lead to outstanding performance.

Leadership reflection

I knew this young manager all too well – because this person was ME. I offer this painful anecdote of my former self to introduce you to the skill of an apology. But first, take a moment to ask yourself these questions:

  • If you were part of these teams, how would this leadership style have felt to you?
  • What if you wanted to share a hard truth about a project? Would you have felt comfortable surfacing it to me?
  • What if I had solved your teams’ problems and told you what to do?
  • At what point should I have stopped and apologized for my leadership mistakes?

What is an Apology?

An apology is a powerful skill of great leadership, but it must be used in the proper context. Let’s start with an adapted definition from the Crucial Conversations skill set: an Apology is a sincere statement of sorrow for your part in causing pain or difficulty in others.

This is how an apology works:

Stop -- As a leader, when you make a mistake that hurts others, you immediately respond with a sincere statement that acknowledges your error. Lead the statement with phrases that shift the conversation in the direction of the apology. Examples include: “Let’s shift gears for a moment.” “Can we put this topic to the side? I need to share something with all of you.”

Pause -- Prepare to make this pivotal statement from the heart, so you can share how you made others feel.

Apologize -- It requires vulnerability and courage to admit your mistake to others. It must be genuine. Start and end your statement with clarity and establish eye contact with others. Examples include: “I am sorry.” “I apologize.”

Restore -- Leverage awareness to see if your apology restored respect and professional safety to the environment. Look for body language and eye contact – if people start to relax and are looking you directly in the eye, then you have potentially restored safety.

An Example of a Leadership Apology

What if you are leading people who have worked extra hours to solve a difficult problem and you round up the teams for an infamous "status update". In this meeting, you discover that minimal progress has been made, so you jump to a whiteboard and energetically sketch out an idea for a solution. After all, you are under pressure as well and need progress to be made toward the goal, so why not offer your own idea? As you look across the room and explain your whiteboard drawings, you see blank stares - uncomfortable silence. The solution is SO obvious to you; why is it not obvious to them? All eyes are on you, so you use this opportunity to make a dangerous statement: “With all of the extra hours you all are working, I don't understand why this problem isn't already solved.” Expecting a response, you get nothing in return. People stare at their laptops with tired and bloodshot eyes. Eyes roll in the back of the room.

I have seen situations like this play out in organizations over the years, but I rarely see the leader use a sincere apology to make things right. In the example above, this person dismissed all of the extra work and personal sacrifice from the teams. At the same time, the leader belittled everyone for the lack of progress. In short, this person made a leadership mistake that hurt others, and if it is not fixed, it will have a negative effect on team and organizational performance.

Skilled leaders apologize quickly

Skilled leaders quickly recognize when a mistake has been made and will use a sincere apology in order to show respect, rebuild trust and promote healthy dialogue. Perhaps something to the effect of... “I need to take a step back and apologize to all of you. Everyone is working so hard and making sacrifices to try and figure this out, and I haven't shown any appreciation for this.” “I let the pressure get the best of me in the moment, and it was wrong. I am sorry.”

If you were this leader, what would your apology sound like? More importantly, what would it feel like? How will you refrain yourself from being too agile and jumping in? Trust and empower your people to do their best work… One thing is for sure - if it is not sincere and the leader's ego gets in the way, then more damage will be done. Learn, think, practice - you never know when you might need to apologize…

Daniel Sloan is an Enterprise Agile Coach & Agile Leadership Coach with The Madison Henry Group, a Professional Scrum Trainer with Scrum.org and an Organizational Culture Consultant in partnership with OCAI online. He is a seasoned veteran who draws from over 22 years of experience to write about real situations from companies in the pursuit of organizational Agility.

Categories Leadership