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Avoid Apologizing

You’d think, on the other hand, that eunoia, or disinterest, would call for an apology. Disinterest shows you really care, right? But disinterest can’t work in isolation from phronesis. You need to show that you care, but also that you can fix the problem. So the ininterested way to respond to a screw-up is to show how much you care by fixing the problem. Southwest Airlines, one of my clients, once suffered a computer glitch that booked multiple tickets for each customer who responded to a chea-flight promotion. The airline sent an email to every victim saying, “We’ve put all hands on deck” to fix the problem. That’s the disinterested part. We’ve dropped everything to get this right. That’s what you need to do: show you’re willing to do whatever it takes. Again, no apology necessary.

Which doesn’t mean hidiing your feelings. If you feel rotten, go ahead and show it. But try not to convey those feelings in the form of an apology. Far better to talk about your own high expectations.

You: Nothing makes me feel worse than failing to live up to my standards. So I’m going to do everything possible…

Don’t apologize at all. The problem with an apology is that it belittles you without enlarging your audience. Belittling yourself fails to un-belittle the victim. That’s why apologies often don’t work. They rarely seem sincere enough or extreme enough. And many people–especially men–try to couch their apoloies in ways that avoid belittling themselves: “I’m really sorry you feel that way.” Aplogies like that only increase the belittlement, implying, “I really wish you weren’t such a sensitive flower.” Try this sometime. Shrink your audience to the size of a plant and watch the anger flow.

Whoa, wait. Aren’t we splitting a hair or two here? When I told my boss how terrible I felt about misplacing a volcano, wasn’t that the same as an apology? Actually, no. Look closely and you will find a crticical difference. When you own up to falling short of your expectations, you emphasize your high standards. Focus on the standards, and you can actually make your ethos bigger in your audience’s eyes. Say you’re sorry, and you shrink.

Still not convinced? Imagine making these two statements to a supervisor:

YOU: Boss, you know what a detail person I usually am. In this case, though, I didn’t live up to that reputation. My mistake drives me crazy, and I’ll be even more fanatical about detail in the future.
YOU: Boss, I screwed up, and I apologize. I’m really, really sorry, and I promise it won’t happen again.

In each instance, how do you think your posture would look? Where would you be looking? I’m guessing you stood up straighter in the first version and you looked pretty hangdog in the second.