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Big Ideas

Apologies Are a Sign of Strength

We all make bad decisions or find ourselves in error. But it's how we own up to our mistakes that makes all the difference.

I overheard a lecture recently on the notion of repentance, and the state of “apologies” in society. A number of famous athletes and politicians have been making the rounds lately, displaying the many different fashions of regret. If you listen closely to their words, you may notice the absence of a real heartfelt apology and understanding of the offense. It has become a rare occasion that a complete apology is made without equivocation.
There are many ways to get around making a proper apology. You can simply blow it off and just say nothing, taking the “let’s just move on” approach. Or you can pass on the blame to others with the “to those who were somehow offended by what I said, sorry” approach – as if it was their fault to find it offensive.We have all been in meetings or discussions where a colleague will simply try to skirt around a mistake or incorrect statement. Such occasions come across as moments of weakness, void of insight and insulting to those watching. We are probably all guilty of this as well.

We lose respect for a leader when he or she fails to acknowledge a mistake. What we want to see in our leaders is a sense of self-awareness and honesty. Personally, I gain confidence when one of my colleagues says, “Gosh, I don’t know what I was thinking, sorry about [fill in the blank].” It makes me feel like the mistake or false assumption is now fully understood and owned. It makes me feel safe.

We lose respect for a leader when he or she fails to acknowledge a mistake.

What concerns me more is when a colleague makes a naive decision and then, when pointed out or proven wrong, simply moves on without any formal acknowledgment. Whether out of a desire to protect a fragile ego or a refusal to learn from a mistake, it is scary to see. It is scary because it makes us question a colleague’s judgment.

When you are at fault, you might fear that admitting an error is admitting weakness. On the contrary, apologies are a sign of strength. Adversity is an opportunity to show your true colors. It is remarkable when a leader is so confident and self-aware that he or she is able to simply apologize. Personally, I find it inspiring.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (15)
  • harri80

    hear hear!

  • Steve Davis

    I totally agree. The times I remember receiving an apology have always increased my esteem for the person speaking. It’s strange that apologies are often seen as a sign of weakness; almost as though people worry that the apology will shine a light on the mistake. In fact, our mistakes are usually well known and privately acknowledged. An apology reveals that we are self-aware and concerned about the impact that our decisions have on others.

    I can’t say I’ve ever thought less of someone after a sincere apology.

  • Philip Allen

    The root of the word ‘apology’ is more akin to an explanation, or a defense, rather than an expression of regret. Perhaps that is why most apologies sound hollow and few are heartfelt.

    There is quite a bit of difference between “I apologize” and “I’m truly sorry.”

  • ethanfurniss

    Personally I don’t like to say sorry. I do make mistakes often and when acknowledged I take full accountability. Nobody is perfect. Sorry is a tactic to skirt recognizing or processing the mistake and handicaps the hope of moving on and growing from the experience.

  • Shane

    Hey Scott, I agree. A public apology by leaders and celebrities (who are leaders in their own right) comes across to me as a politically correct move many times. Here is a thought – “Being sorry that you did something is different than being sorry that you got caught.” Being able to admit that you were wrong is a strong leadership trait, and relationships strengthen as trust and transparency increases. Great post!

  • Anne Cossette

    100% agree. Really insightful post and worth spreading about for everyone to read and think about.

  • diana goh

    Everyone should read this!

  • Venicebeacheats

    One part of this process that is not addressed here is follow up. You can apologize and then keep acting like a putz and the person will think you were being insincere. Actions speak louder than words- so if you say “From this point forward I want to act differently…” to make up for a mistake, then honor that commitment and show you can keep it through consistent action. ☆

  • Mark

    Brilliant!!! Bravo!!!

  • Damurm

    its not what you have now, its what you have when its now.

  • Joe of Hit by a Brick

    Couldn’t agree more. Thanks.

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  • Mohamed Shajid

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  • Offender

    “Or you can pass on the blame to others with the “to those who were
    somehow offended by what I said, sorry” approach – as if it was their
    fault to find it offensive.”

    I want to know where people get this erroneous idea from. I find this attitude offensive. Do I deserve an apology?

    Have so few people heard of the Bill of Rights? It gives us the freedom of speech. It does not give us the freedom to not be offended.

    How unfree is it that I have to try to think about what I say, so that I might not offend someone? This is probably the least American attitude one could possibly have. That is straight thought-fascism.

    If something offends you, that is totally your fault. And you can probably avoid coming into exposure to what offends you. If you can’t avoid, you can realign your mindset so that whatever offends you doesn’t anymore.

    Now, I will agree that words can be powerful (more powerful than the sword even) and that I have felt a kind of emotional discomfort (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it pain) for things people have said to me. But it would be foolish if I took what they said to heart. Most often I just get comfronted with doubt about my ambitions (Oh, you’ll never do that; you can’t do that.) That’s offensive on some level. Should I really expect people to not express their doubts? Actually, most words that I felt discomfort from have had no lasting impact on me. In fact, I often find it encouraging in the short term and very forgettable in the long term.

    As long as an activity has no potential to cause clear and present danger, like speaking. Unless I was speaking about doing some harm to you, you shouldn’t expect an apology. I can call you fat, ugly, a fag or a nigger. Any offense you take is from your own insecurities and I should not feel any repression to express my opinions fully and accurately. They’re just words. Just dots on a screen. If you’re offended, it’s completely your fault. You’re processing those dots on the screen and interpreting them in a way that another may not interpret.

    “I think you owe me an apology.”
    “Because you offended me.”
    “How did I offend you?”
    “Because of something you said.”
    “Oh, I’m sorry you’re so easily offended.”

    Isn’t that just some kind of fascism, mind control? You want me to say, “Oh, you are so much more important that me. Let me bow down and keep records of all that offends you, because you are so precious and delicate and I would never want you to be offended, because the world revolves around you and nobody should have an opinion that differs from yours. Surely peace will reign the earth when I submit to your insecurities”?

    I think of nudity in a similar way. I really don’t understand how someone else’s insecurity is justification to repress natural living.

    Actually, most of my questions are rhetorical. I know where most of these ideas come from, but I don’t understand why people listen to the voices of unreason.

    On the other hand, apologies often come up as insincere. People apologize all the time for stupid shit that they should never have done in the first place.

    I say, let me know when I do something you don’t agree with, but don’t expect me to bow to your expectations. If you do see someone doing something that isn’t right, I suggest first asking why they are doing that. I see adults all the time telling kids to do or not do something. However, if they first asked why the kind was doing it, they would have learned some valuable insight that the adult never considered and without offending the youth, would have never had to even tell them what they think.

    I’m just glad I never put up a dime for an offensively overpriced, closed-minded Adobe product.

    • Rick

      You must be a rude person who often say rude stupid shit to offend people, and now finding excuses to justify your rudeness. I feel sorry for your parents(I feel sorry for you if they died early, that would explain a lot, though.)
      Or maybe it’s your parents’ fault that you are like this? Perhaps your parents are just as obnoxious and self-absorbed as you are.

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