An apology is the superglue of life. It can repair just about anything.

 Lynn Johnston

After a little temper tantrum, my then nine-year-old daughter Katie left a note in a custom made envelope that said, “I am very sorry for the way that I have been acting.  You were just trying to be nice and I was very mean to you.  I just don’t like being sick and missing school.  You don’t know how sorry that I am.  Is there any way that you could forgive me?  Yes or no?”

“What a beautiful apology,” I thought.  It made me think about how or whether I apologize to people that I offend in personal and professional settings.

The public apology has become common from governors to golfers, singers to stars.  Corporations realize they need to own up to their mistakes.  The Reed Hastings apology was the latest corporate version.  Some of these work, some are obviously contrived.

Good Work is a series about social entrepreneurs that work for public benefit.  I think it’s fair to say that people seeking impact are often more self-aware about how their actions affect other people.

I have a pretty low empathy quotient.  When leading an organization I need team members that compensate for my blind spots.  They help identify the need for an apology and help me get it right.  Here’s five lessons:

  1. Apologize fast, don’t let the wound fester
  2. Be appropriately (and honestly) contrite
  3. Be specific about the error (and remedy as applicable)
  4. Explain but don’t offer excuses
  5. Don’t use it to get the last word in

The good news about mission-related work is never having to apologize for what you do.  But when you screw up, take a lesson from Katie and offer a quick, heartfelt, specific apology.

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