Should Managers Apologize?

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Is the Boss Always Right

Should the Boss Always Be Right?

A hot-tempered conference call had just ended. I stepped out of my office to get some fresh air and get a drink of water. At the water cooler I ran into a peer, a fellow manager, who had also been on the conference call.

“Wow, that was intense” she said.

“Yeah. I don’t get why he just won’t let it go. Admit the mistake, apologize, and move on.”

“Not going to happen” she replied. “He told me he never apologizes as he thinks it’s a sign of weakness.”

“Say again?”

“He said that he will never admit to a mistake, or apologize as he believes it makes people question his authority.”

We were talking about Richard, a high-ranking executive in the company who had recently made a mistake with a decision a few weeks prior. Though it was nothing of extreme consequence or something that would threaten the fate of the company, Richard grew quite defensive on the phone call as a result of the conversation.  It was simply a decision that he made which ended up forcing a little extra work on our part to recover. 

While brilliant and talented, he was human. I had seen it before, but never quite put the facts together. Richard was highly intelligent and could debate, philosophize and articulate virtually any topic you threw at him. His skill was extremely impressive. And at times, it could be intense.

But my colleague’s point was accurate. In all my years working for Richard, I could not recall a time when he admitted a mistake or had simply apologized for a regretful decision. Richard was very much an executive and in many ways, people feared him because of his intensity. And as I thought about my colleague’s comment more and more, it turned out that she was correct. Richard was never wrong and had a machine-like personality that made him hard to rationalize with.

There are different camps on this matter. Like Richard, some people suggest that admitting mistakes and apologizing could be seen as a sign of weakness, one that could undermine your management authority. Other managers see admitting errors and apologizing as a means of building respect and trust within their teams and organizations.

I happen to agree with the view that admitting one’s mistakes and offering simple apologies when appropriate offers tremendous value to a manager’s stock. Managers make errors all the time.  When employees see their own boss admit these mistakes and offer apologies as necessary, it signals that a policy of trust and honestly is expected and safe. Unfortunately there seems to be a stigma about managers these days. You will often here an employee state that “management” schemes frequently, keeps secrets and rarely offers all details. Admitting errors and conceding you were wrong counter balances such skeptical views of management, I think.

This is not to say that managers should apologize for every slightly incorrect detail to keep the record straight, nor that managers should send a companywide email as a martyr. Instead, managers are in positions of authority, and earning the reputation of a push-over can be detrimental in the long run. The point is simply that managers need not behave like robots who lack a conscience, but rather as people who can make occasional mistakes and whom are willing to admit it.

While the opinion that admitting mistakes suggests weakness and softens credibility may be true, the impact of this perceived weakness is far less severe than the long-term impact of a team that doesn’t trust you as their manager, or does not believe you are genuine. Managers who neglect to show vulnerability risk missing an opportunity to build sound relationships with employees, as well as missing a chance to create a culture of trust and respect within their organization.

So what do you think? Should managers apologize?

Additional Resources:

The Importance of Being Human as a Manager (blog post)




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