You did it again.
The staff is annoyed because you missed a meeting or didn’t send out the reminder email about the investors visiting the office that day. Yes, it’s a bit embarrassing, but there’s no need to apologize. Stuff happens, as they say. Yet there are times when you should apologize for something you did or said, because it’s a sign of great leadership. It builds a bridge back to the employee you offended or hurt, and it creates a more positive work environment. Here’s when you should own up to a mistake.
1. You Took Credit for Something in Error
We all make mistakes. One of them that comes up in business, either by design or by accident, is when we take credit for a major milestone on a project. In the moment, it seems like the right thing to do, possibly if you are talking to someone about a company you own or a project you’re leading. It’s damaging to your relationships with employees. When you apologize, you let the employee or co-worker know you made a mistake. Better yet, after apologizing, make sure you give proper credit.
2. You Showed Favoritism
Good leaders make plenty of mistakes, but what makes someone great is a willingness to spread the credit around to every employee. Why is that? There’s a temptation to recognize a particular person over and over again as a way to encourage that kind of exceptional work. In my experience, it’s better to spread the encouragement around evenly and not pick one person you like or who sticks out the most. If you do, apologize to the team as a way to demonstrate that everyone adds value.
3. You Kept Someone Out of the Loop on Purpose
One tactic so-so leaders use on occasion is to keep someone out of the communication cycle. Maybe it comes from a desire to confide in the highest-performing employees or some other motivation. What I’ve found is that it’s far better to communicate with everyone equally. You’ll have some conversations with direct reports and some with co-workers, but great leaders find a way to include everyone. Few of them are excluders; they are always includers.
4. You Sent a Demanding Email
I’ve seen this one many times, and I’ve made this mistake before as well. As the boss, you might be tempted to make a harsh demand. You’re the boss! But it’s easy to forget how that can be perceived. Anger doesn’t work as a management tactic. It’s ineffective because it destroys trust, and people don’t want to work for someone they don’t trust and don’t like. Apologize for any outburst right away.
5. You Created Division
In leadership, there are times when you create division either because you are excluding part of the team or because you didn’t communicate clearly about a project. Division happens, but it’s easy to forget the kind of damage it causes. From what I’ve seen, great leaders know how to recognize division and when they’ve created the problem. Disunity usually starts with minor issues that go unchecked.
6. You Did Work for an Underperforming Employee
Here’s another common mistake. You see an employee who is not quite getting the work done, so you offer to help or even do the work behind the scenes without telling anyone. It’s a problem because other employees then grow resentful of the underperformer. They wonder why they should work so hard. Great leaders own up to this mistake. And they figure out how to make sure it doesn’t happen regularly.
7. You Arrived Unannounced at a Meeting Held by a Direct Report
I used to pop into meetings, and sometimes still do that in my volunteer roles. It’s a big mistake, because it makes a direct report think you are spying on him or her, or worse. In modern work culture, I’ve seen how great leaders over-communicate about everything—including whether they will attend a meeting—to make sure everyone knows what’s going on.
8. You Challenged the Thinking of an Employee in Anger
Anger comes into the equation once again. For some, it’s a way to get what you want without having to explain things, build trust, communicate about plans, or discuss options in a calm matter. Good leaders are those who hate to lose; great ones admit when they make a mistake, even if it means not getting the chance to challenge someone’s bad idea as much as they would like. It’s better to keep the relationship intact, communicate about the idea, and correct with a calm decorum.
9. You Made a False Accusation
You can cause a lot of damage with employees when you correct them or make an accusation that doesn’t really match up with reality. No one is perfect. If you do make a false accusation, make sure you take the employee aside and fess up. The problem with those who lead poorly is they tend to let things slide and don’t do the hard work of following up, asking questions, and apologizing when needed.
10. You Gossiped
Yes, even great leaders gossip. It’s a human trait, and most of them are only human! When you do gossip, you have to make amends, which takes guts. The bad leaders gossip and hope no one notices. They don’t realize the full extent of the damage they’ve caused. Great leaders know an idle comment about an employee destroys morale for everyone, not just the person who was gossiped about.
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