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  • Writer's pictureBahar Önderol

Is Apologizing a Weakness for a Leader?

Do you think apologizing will make you look weak as a leader?
Do Leaders Apologize?

Today, I was listening to BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth program, where Sociology professor Louise Mullany discussed the British habit of apologising. I learned that the average British person apologizes around eight times a day. This made me ponder: what about Turkish people? Observing our politicians, it is obvious that we do not like apologizing at all. This reluctance to apologize extends to our workplaces, particularly among management. When managers make mistakes, they struggle to admit it and often resort to expressing remorse through their actions rather than their words.

Why is it so hard to simply say "I'm sorry"?

The difficulty in apologizing can be rooted in individual psychology but is also deeply embedded in cultural norms. In Turkish culture, there is a strong emphasis on preserving pride and honour. Traditionally, parents are not expected to apologize to their children, teachers to their students, or managers to their employees. The fear is that apologizing will diminish their reputation and undermine their authority, making them appear weak. Many managers believe that to be strong, assertive, and competitive, they must avoid apologies. They worry that an apology might be perceived as a sign of weakness, opening the door to challenges and questions about their leadership. In my career, I have seen a manager apologize only once—and he was British!

Our behaviours are heavily influenced by the culture we live in, often in ways we don't consciously question. Psychologist Doğan Cüceoğlu refers to this phenomenon as cultural robotics. Although I consider myself someone who does not hesitate to apologize, I realize that, especially at the beginning of my leadership journey, I wasn’t brave enough in this regard. Witnessing the positive impact of a manager who apologized to me helped change my prejudices about apologizing.

Good leaders possess the ability to reflect on situations, make sense of failures or mistakes, and openly accept and express them. Whether you have scolded an employee for missing a deadline or created tension by acting angrily during a team meeting, a sincere and heartfelt apology will mean a lot to your employees. It will make you a better and more respected leader. Apologizing does not make you look weak; rather, it shows your human side and demonstrates that you are taking responsibility.

When apologizing, avoid using words like "if" and "but". Phrases such as "I'm sorry I couldn't get back to you, but I was too busy," dilute the apology's sincerity. Similarly, saying "I'm sorry if I upset you" can come across as judgmental, implying the other person is overly sensitive, shifting blame onto the targeted person and not taking personal responsibility at all. These non-apologies aren’t just weak; they can actually inflict more harm and exacerbate hurt feelings. Instead, make a straightforward and sincere apology.

Embrace the courage to confront and express your own mistakes. This openness not only humanizes you as a leader but also sets a powerful example for your team. By showing vulnerability, you create a safe space for others to do the same, fostering an environment of respect and trust.


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