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The Importance of Saying I Am Sorry

Posted on February 13, 2019
Navy blue background with the words "I'm sorry" in the middle

It is likely at some point in your career you have worked with someone who was rude or insensitive, or even nasty. It is also likely you have been rude or insensitive (maybe even nasty) to a colleague. Being on the receiving end does not feel good. No one wants to be yelled at, dismissed, talked down to, or treated as if they are inconsequential. I will argue there are underlying elements in that person’s life that has left them short-tempered, etc. Perhaps it is a sick parent or child, a divorce or dying dog, personal failures or financial issues, etc. Regardless of the root cause, no one else should suffer because there is turmoil in your life, and if you treat someone poorly, then step up and do the right thing and apologize.

Brené Brown, in her book Dare to Lead, argues, “While some leaders consider apologizing to be a sign of weakness, we teach it as a skill and frame the willingness to apologize and make amends as brave leadership.” She also talks a lot in this book about vulnerability and there is no doubt that stepping up, in front of a colleague you just insulted or yelled at, immediately makes you vulnerable, but it also is a bridge to honesty and accountability. And without those two elements, there can never be trust.

Saying sorry should never include a “but” as in “I’m sorry I yelled at you at the meeting, but you didn’t complete the work and…” No one deserves to be yelled at – EVER! Even someone who loses a company thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars does not deserve to be yelled at. Even the person to purposely embezzled monies does not deserve to be yelled at. Conversations around the behavior, even dismissal, absolutely, but yelling – no.

I also want to note that an apology is not the equivalent of rinse and repeat. An apology should be a contract to avoid such altercations in the future. It should be telling the recipient, “I behaved badly and I will not treat you that way again.” If the behavior continues, then the words, “I’m sorry” are hollow and hold no value. It also means you will no longer be considered a safe person, or a person who can be trusted, and certainly not a person who is accountable for their actions.

Of course, this means you have to be aware of your actions and the impact your actions have on others. Take some time to think about how you treat your colleagues. Without witnessing anything, if you have yelled, belittled, made fun of, insulted, made inappropriate comments, etc., then you have behaved badly and you should take some time to think about your behavior and about how you can make amends to those who have been on the receiving end. A hint: you begin with “I’m sorry.”


Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department Head of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University

Source: Brown, B. (2018). Dare to Lead. New York: Random House

Posted in interpersonal-communications, leadership-management-skills