Sorry seems to be the hardest word

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"Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness."

So, we're now a few days past the UK general election and the dust is starting to settle. I'm not going to wade into the quagmire that is modern British politics. I do, however, want to talk about a criticism that frequently gets levelled at politicians across the spectrum, which is that they never say sorry. This FT article discusses an example of this.

In a recent session that I ran at a global bank, we were debating this very topic in relation to people management and leadership. I posited the question, "To what extent should a manager acknowledge their contribution to a perception gap opening up?".

To understand what I meant by this question, I'll explain what a perception gap isThis is a key model that we talk about at byrne•dean in our management and leadership sessions. A perception gap opens up when an individual perceives their contribution/performance/importance to be at a significantly greater level than their manager perceives it. Negative emotions (anger, resentment) which many employees feel on realising the extent of the perception gap can be the catalyst for a variety of consequences, including a downward spiral of disengagement, workplace disputes, grievances and litigation. Managers should, therefore, endeavour to ensure that there are no gaps in perception through regular, honest and two-way communication and feedback regarding expectation and performance. And if the manager doesn't do this, should they apologise for it?

In the session, there were a few participants felt strongly that managers shouldn't say sorry. They possibly subscribed to a more authoritarian and traditional style of people management. They felt that managers should be strong and invulnerable and that apologising would damage their position of authority and cause their team to lose respect for them. Someone else commented that saying sorry would be an admission of liability which could then get thrown back in the manager's face by the employee further down the line if the issue escalated and became more formal. 

With my employment lawyer's hat on, of course there is always a risk that saying sorry can open a manager up to liability and when I was a practising solicitor, I would have cautioned my clients against doing this. It remains important that a manager should take advice from HR/ER if they can see that there is a growing risk of an 'employee relations explosion' caused in part by them - to help them approach the conversation in a constructive and forward looking way.

However, this risk is, in my view, outweighed by the many benefits of 'fessing up', which I will outline below:

1. Building and maintaining trust. Trust has to exist if there's any chance that a perception gap will close and also to generate high employee engagement and productivity. Neuroscience research tells us that our brains simply don't work as effectively when we're feeling afraid and our threat response is triggered. If an individual doesn't trust their manager, and if they feel their manager is blaming them for the situation that has developed, they're likely to adopt a more defensive position and disengage further. And when an employee becomes actively disengaged, paradoxically, the situation is more likely to result in the employee relations explosion that the managers above were seeking to avoid by not saying sorry!

2. Fostering psychological safety. This has been identified as a key factor in high performing teams. The individual has to believe that their manager is on their side, they have their best interests at heart and genuinely want to help them improve their performance - authentic connection and trust are crucial to this.

3. Role modelling accountability and creating a speak-up culture. A manager who is prepared to own up to their mistakes and learn from them is role modelling openness, transparency and accountability. It sends the message that the manager is approachable and will support them if something goes wrong, rather than blaming them and casting them adrift.

4. Cultivating a growth mindset and a solutions focus. If a manager readily acknowledges their mistakes and focuses on what they have learned from them, this mindset will more readily be adopted by the team. This will encourage them to step out of their comfort zone, take on stretch challenges, offer feedback or speak up about issues of concern or mistakes they may have made, without fear or reprisals or repercussions. 

5. It's a more inclusive way of leading people. The manager is demonstrating their appreciation for the fact that we all see things differently and their perception is just one version of truth. If they demonstrate that they are committed to understanding the different perspectives and perceptions of their team, they will be able to leverage that diversity for the benefit of individual and team performance. 

The biggest hurdle to saying sorry is that it requires a manager to show vulnerability. But vulnerability is absolutely not a weakness - in fact, it's quite the opposite, it shows great strength. In the words of Brene Brown, "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness."

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