Saturday, November 10, 2007

MANAGEMENT : The Power of Expressing Regret

By Marshall Goldsmith

Expressing regret, or apologizing, is a cleansing ritual, like confession in church. You say, “I’m sorry”—and you feel better. That’s the theory at least. But like many things that are fine in theory, it’s hard for many of us to do.

Perhaps we think apologizing means we have lost a contest…and successful people have a practically irrational need to win at everything.

Perhaps we find it painful to admit we were wrong. We rarely have to apologize for being right!

Perhaps we find it humiliating to seek forgiveness, which suggests subservience.

Perhaps we feel that apologizing forces us to cede power or control. (Actually, the opposite is true.)

Whatever the reasons, refusing to apologize causes as much ill will in the workplace…and at home…as any other interpersonal flaw. Just think how bitter you have felt when a friend failed to apologize for hurting you or letting you down. And remember how long that bitterness festered.

If you look back at the tattered relationships in your life, I suspect many of them began to fray at the seams at the moment when one of you couldn’t summon the emotional intelligence to say, “I’m sorry.”

People who can’t apologize at work may as well be wearing a t-shirt that says, “I don’t care about you.” The irony is that all the fears that lead us to resist apologizing—the fear of losing, admitting we’re wrong, ceding control—are actually erased by an apology. When you say, “I’m sorry,” you turn people into your allies, even your partners.

You see this principle at work in the first step I help every successful person take in order to become more successful. I teach them to apologize—face to face—to every coworker who has agreed to help them get better.

Apologizing is one of te most powerful and resonant gestures in the human arsenal—almost as powerful as a declaration of love. It’s “I love you,” flipped on its head. If love means, “I care about you and I’m happy about it,” then an apology means, “I hurt you and I’m sorry about it.” Either way, it irrevocably changes the relationship between two people, compelling them to move forward into something new and, perhaps, wonderful together.

The best thing about apologizing is that it forces everyone to let go of the past. In effect, you are saying, “I can’t change the past. All I can say is I’m sorry for what I did wrong. I’m sorry it hurt you. There’s no excuse for it and I will try to do better in the future. I would like your ideas on how I can improve.”

This kind of statement is hard for even the most cold-hearted among us to resist. And when you use it on coworkers, it can dramatically change how they feel about you and themselves.

My client Beth was the highest-ranking woman at a Fortune 100 company. Although her bosses and direct reports loved her, she was loathed by some of her peers. She had a particularly toxic relationship with a hard-boiled executive named Harvey. Beth was a smart young hotshot brought in by the CEO to make changes. Harvey saw her as arrogant and disrespectful of the company’s history and traditions. Their turf wars brought out the worst side of her personality: a mean, vindictive streak. We agreed that this was the behavior she would change.

Beth bristled at first to the thought that she must apologize to Harvey. The idea was so distasteful to her that I scripted her apology to circumvent any hesitations that might destroy its effect. To Beth’s credit, she followed the script.

She said, “Harvey, I appreciate the positive feedback I’ve received. There are also some things at which I want to be better. I’ve been disrespectful to you, the company, and the traditions in the company. Please accept my apology. There is no excuse for this behavior and…”

Harvey cut her off before she finished, responding, “Beth, it’s not just you, it’s me too. I have not been a gentleman in the way I’ve treated you. I know this is hard for you to say to me, and these are not just your problems. This is my problem too. We can get better together.”

That’s the magic in this process. When you declare your dependence on others, they usually agree to help. And during the course of helping you be a better person, they inevitably try to become better people themselves. This is how individuals change, how teams improve, how divisions grow, and how companies become industry leaders.

Excerpted from What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, 2007

Marshall Goldsmith is a world authority in helping successful leaders achieve positive, measurable change in behavior: for themselves, their people and their teams. He has been named one of the top 50 leaders influencing the field of management over the last century (American Management Association), one of the five most respected executive coaches (Forbes) and among the top ten executive educators (Wall Street Journal). Marshall invites you to visit his library ( for articles and resources you can use.

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