Apologizing is a strength, a beautiful thing, in balance. And then, there are times when it is inappropriate, ill perceived, and even damaging to the one apologizing. "I'm sorry...", is easily over done.
Leroy Jethro Gibbs was famous for quoting Rule Number 6, "Never say you're sorry, it's a sign of weakness." On the surface, one can hear the ring of truth in that rule. For it has happened, hasn't it? We have apologized for something and we knew immediately, as soon as the words escaped, it was a mistake. At that moment we knew we had put ourselves at a social disadvantage. If one is very fortunate the other person might say something like, "No, no, no! Not at all, don't worry about it.!" Unfortunately, and especially in today's tough business world, in the super competitive workplace, or in everyday leadership opportunities, the reply is often, awkward silence.
NCIS and Gibbs will go down in history as one of the longest running and most popular investigative TV series, much thanks to Abby, DiNozzo, Ziva, and McGee, (or was it McGeek?) - but they may not be the best sources of of emotional intelligence. (no apologies here) A recent article, writtin by sociologist Maja Jovanovi, offers a more balanced view of "I'm Sorry!". In support, consider the following.
A co-worker who later became the president of the corporation, almost never kept an appointment, even if he himself initiated it. Year, after year, and even after the two of us no longer worked at the same place, it continued to be the same. For some reason, he would find the need to "reach out" and "collaborate", "catch up" and schedule a time. Good intentions. Looking back, it's almost humorous how often those appointments were made and at the last minute, "can we re-schedule?" What makes it worse? On the rare, rare, rare occasion that he would feign an attempt to apologize (after the 2nd or 3rd reschedule), I would make it easy for him, make excuses for him, readily accept his "You know...this, that and the other came up...", and go on to bolster his lame, and thinly disguised attempt at pretending remorse. Lessons of what not to do in leadership. (From both of us.)
But, these things happen, right? Sorry. We are human, optimistic, continue to look for opportunities to see the best in people. For that we apologize? Yes, and for that, some have lost promotions, friendships, even love. A former associate - the most beautiful young woman. Tall, blonde, thin, intelligent, fastidiously clean, gainfully employed, outgoing, volunteer in the community, compassionate, enterprising. Her one flaw? She said "Sorry" at least 25 times a day - no exaggeration. She remained unmarried even though it was a great longing. The referenced article contributes as to why. To quote Jovanoi, "They (frequent "I'm sorry's...") make us appear smaller and more timid than we really are, and they can undercut our confidence." It bears repeating, "smaller and less confident". And yet, in this cut-throat business world, why would anyone want to "appear" smaller, less confident? It goes without saying in the delicate matter of personal relationships, or that of finding a marriage mate...why would anyone want to appear less confident?!
Egonomics, a favorite title, offers an idea, a ray of light into the internal process of why we humans might unwittingly go about the performance of the smaller, less confident ruse - the unbalanced ego. Somewhere between egocentric and a term that Marcum and Smith coined as "ego-empty" lies the "ego balance". They write about how difficult it is to stay 100 % balanced, all the time. Taken from this research was one of the most famous "I'm sorry, was that an apology?" quotes, referring to the long, roundabout "How can I appear apologetic?" speech by Pete Rose when he admitted to betting on professional baseball in 1989. "I'm sure that I'm supposed to act all sorry or sad or guilty now thqt I've accepted that I've done something wrong," said Pete Rose, "But I'm just not built that way. So, let's leave it like this: I'm sorry it happened and I'm sorry for all the people, fans, and family it hurt. Let's move on." Again, if it wasn't so serious, it's almost humorous. Some can't quite get the "I'm sorry" out in a genuine way. And then there is the other half that spend much of their life on autopilot "I'm sorry". You've met them, maybe even like them, perhaps pitty them.
"Smaller and less confident". Wrapping the mind around why anyone would consciously want to err on the side of over apologizing...the truth is we really are not sorry, no not really, and everyone knows it. There is even an app for that! (Just Not Sorry) An app that reminds us while writing, that we have once again, said, "I'm sorry". Does it never end? No. The worse news is that it is largely a woman thing. It's WOMEN that somehow feel the need to apologize profusely, to make others feel better about their own lacking or mistakes. Some say they were socialized / trained to quickly offer "I'm sorry!" How shall we, dear sisters, correct these appearances? Are we even conscious of the personal and professional damages? Jovonoi goes so far, as to point out to perfect strangers, the repetitious and unconscious "I'm sorry"! We too can raise awareness. Or, we can use the strategies of men - many men simply say "Thank you for waiting, for your patience, etc.", and confidently assume that shortcomings will be overlooked. And they are! What do men say when they are 10 minutes late for yet another business meeting? "Thank you for waiting." What do those who are inconvenienced say to that? "No problem, now where were we?" Yes, these are over-generalizations, (did I just apologize?) and there are invariably those in the waiting audience who will not let such an absence go unnoticed (another male co-worker comes to mind) but again, what do women in the same position say? "I'm so sorry! Where does the time go?" It's like a really bad habit. Or, we can strive for a more balanced ego. According to Marcum and Smith, egocentric and ego empty are two sides to the same coin. "Smaller and less confident" is another version of overbearing and arrogant. Egonomics advises that the balance is found in humility, that it draws one back to ego balance from either extreme. At the risk of sounding judgemental, let's stop pretending that we are sorry when we are not. Let's start being real, and in all humility, let's bravely and honestly cease with the appearance of either feigning apologies, or appearing smaller and less confident. Let's model brave leadership behavior.
One of the best leadership workshops ever, one that brings home the effectiveness of saying what you mean and meaning what you say was in an equine training setting. One does not want to appear smaller nor less confident around horses. Participants enter into the round pen with a long stick in one hand and a snap whip in the other hand. The stick is used to indicate direction. The whip is snapped sharply to call attention. The rules? Do not touch the horse with either. The horses has been through the drill a hundred times, and for them the name of the game is, "who can we bluff?" And they do challenge authority, immediately. The man or woman in the arena has maybe 30 seconds to decide...do I step up and in, towards the horse and take command? Or do I run?! No debate, no coddling, decision time. The horses are gentle, (hopefully) but they can make some serious eye contact and walk straight towards you, as if to say, "Whatcha think ya gonna do with that stick?" The successful participant quickly gives clear communication and direction, cracks the whip and the horse snaps to attention. It's that easy. The exercise goes on for 10 or 15 minutes, change direction, command attention, respectful compliance - with an occasional "Are you sure?" hesitation from the horse. Step up, stretch out the arm AND the stick to APPEAR larger, snap the whip, reaffirming, "Yes, I'm sure. Go this way." At the end of the exercise, the participant lays down the stick and walks away. The horse respectfully follows. It bears repeating, the bluffing, challenging, hesitating horse has now gained respect and willfully, eagerly, follows! Confidence is a wonderful thing. It goes hand in hand with leadership. Maybe it's the setting? Can we change the mindset to perform like we are always in the round pen? The opposite of smaller, less confident - clear, concise, and honest communication, and the balanced ego. It not only works, it fosters efficiency and productivity, is reassuring, having a stabilizing effect, at work, at play.
We're so sorry, Uncle Albert, but we won't go 'round apologizing all day. (Can you hear Paul McCartney and Wings?) Thank you for considering the necessity (or not) af the next "I'm Sorry!", and balancing ego.