Role of power in apologies

Question posed: is it seemly for a manager to apologize to someone he supervises? Although I was in the wrong, I’m concerned about losing face, or diminishing my authority in the employee’s eyes.

Answer: Loss of face is painful, and often temporary. It’s a great start you have the insight that you were wrong, and owe an apology. Your legitimate concern is based, in part, on beliefs about power. Let’s examine your assumptions:
A manager is strong and always right – not

Sorry; the belief one person at the top has all the answers was burdensome to everyone, especially to the guy (it was a guy always back then) at the top. If you don’t always have to be strong and be right, you can be uncertain and wrong. That gives people a chance to grow and share with you. Even in highly structured cultures with deep deference to authority and strict hierarchies, the top person has apologized when wrong.

An apology is part of a conversation, not a tiny, fixed point in time.

The conversation ended with you doing or saying something that now bothers you. The conversation is already ongoing in your own mind, and likely in the employee’s mind too. Until you apologize, you won’t know how the employee is dealing with impacts from the conversation. The apology includes asking the employee for his/her perspective.

You likely didn’t enter into the original action or conversation with the intention of being wrong or unreasonable or uncaring. There was something you didn’t know that now you do know. Thus, you are ready to apologize, based on that additional knowledge. If you’re not bonded to the idea of your own power, you learn more.

Learning adds context to your beliefs. Often, after you learn you want to apologize for behaviour that seemed reasonable at the time you behaved that way. Learning the impact of your behaviour on the employee puts your behaviour in different light.

Power, authority, leadership and managing

Power, authority, leadership, and managing are different, and independent of one another. It’s possible to have all or some of the four, one only, any combination of two or three, or none of them. An apology won’t diminish your qualities.

People appreciate a proper apology. Tell the employee you’re sorry, that you will continue to work together with more two-way feedback than before. Your qualities and skills get a boost. Leadership includes doing your best no matter what the employee’s reaction is to your apology.

You can’t give up power

Power is not a finite resource that runs out. It’s renewable, fuelled with the good managing you do. Any challenge to your authority will remain at the same level it was before you apologized. Challenge to your authority is more likely from you being unrepentant about being wrong.

You’re offering to learn from the communication. What is empowering to you both is new, shared knowledge.

Deborah first published this post on August 31, 2009 in Developing Conflict Competence.