Accountability in Business: When Leaders Should Apologize

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Voltage Effect" by John A. List. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Should you apologize to your team when you mess up? Is it possible to apologize too much?

As difficult as it can be, it seems obvious that leaders should admit their mistakes. However, it’s not so cut and dry when and how they should apologize. In The Voltage Effect, John A. List discusses what accountability in business should look like.

Keep reading for List’s advice that can help you be a better leader and teammate.

Accountability in Business

List notes that, as you scale your business, you will make mistakes along the way. Accountability in business is vital. So, when you fall short, List stresses that the best thing for your organization is for you to take responsibility for your actions and offer an apology.

(Shortform note: As a corollary to the rule that you should apologize for any mistakes that you’re responsible for, you should avoid apologizing for things that aren’t truly your fault. Research has shown that apologizing when you’re not in the wrong can lower your self-esteem and lead others to view you as incompetent. For example, suppose you run a logistics company, and one of your shipments is delayed due to a hurricane making local roads impassable. While you should communicate to your client that the shipment will be late, you shouldn’t apologize, as this will cause the client to infer that the delay is your fault when in reality it isn’t.)

When offering an apology, note that money speaks louder than words. For example, if some of your employees feel they’ve been underpaid or mistreated on the basis of their race or gender, they’ll probably respond more positively to an apology that includes a wage increase than to an apology without financial compensation.

(Shortform note: Some experts argue that apologies that don’t include some form of reparative action aren’t real apologies. According to these experts, to make a genuine apology, commit to rectifying the situation and ensuring that it doesn’t happen again. In business-related conflicts, reparative action often includes a financial angle, as List describes. However, reparative action can take many forms and should be carefully chosen to correct your organization’s errors. For example, if one of your factories accidentally leaks pollution into the local environment, you could dedicate organizational resources to funding cleanup efforts that will help mitigate the negative impact of the spill.)

However, don’t be too quick to apologize, especially in situations that are likely to recur. Apologizing too frequently lowers the value of each additional apology, especially if you’re unable to fix the issue you’re apologizing for. For example, if you run a delivery service, and five-minute delays due to traffic variance are unavoidable, you probably shouldn’t offer an apology each time. It’ll only make the user more upset if another order gets delayed.

(Shortform note: Apologizing too frequently can be a difficult habit to break, but there are ways to make the process easier. For one, experts recommend that you practice thanking people in situations where you habitually apologize. For instance, if you ask a schoolmate for help with an assignment, instead of apologizing for bothering them, you can simply thank them for their time.)

Accountability in Business: When Leaders Should Apologize

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  • How to take ideas from the small scale to the big stage
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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