A Real Leader Knows When to Say I'm Sorry

In 2014, Bono apologized for giving U2’s album Songs of Innocence to iTunes users who did not ask for it. Two years before, Tim Cook apologized for forcing Apple Maps on iPhone users, who complained that Apple’s Maps did not work as well as Google’s.

Apologies are commonplace in public and private life. But not everyone agrees. The iconic American actor John Wayne said that we should never apologize lest we be considered weak. Lawyers in defense trials often counsel against apologies, which might be taken as an admission of guilt.

As business leaders, we need to know how and when to apologize so that we can lead effectively. The good news is that there is a growing body of research to show us when apologizing is good. And models to help us apologize better, so that our efforts have the intended effect, and do not make things worse.

People Like People Who Apologize

Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School found that superfluous apologies help build trust between strangers. In one experiment, a man approached 65 strangers and asked to borrow their phone. Half of the requests were preceded by an apology for the weather, something like, “I am sorry about the rain.” Forty-seven percent of those who first heard the words “I am sorry” lent the man their phones, versus 9% of those who did not.

Dan Ariely, author of The Upside of Irrationality, found that apologies make people less likely to cheat you out of money. Dan’s experiment was to offer people $5 to help with a task, and then overpay them, apparently by accident. In some cases, the experimenter would take a phone call, in the middle of explaining the task, and make the subject wait. Subjects who had to wait while the experimenter talked on the phone were more likely to keep the extra money. But if an apology was made, subjects were as likely to return the overpayment as those who did not have to wait.

In their 2010 paper Does Sorry Work, Benjamin Ho and Elaine Liu studied the impact of Apology Laws. These laws, which were first passed by Massachusetts in 1986, encourage doctors to apologize by making a doctor’s apology inadmissible as evidence of wrongdoing in medical malpractice lawsuits. With 36 states to study, Ho and Liu found that Apology Laws result in the most severe cases settling 20% faster and claim payments lower by $55,000-$73,000, a 14%-17% reduction.

Apologies Make Us Feel Better

One clue as to why outcomes are improved when an apology is given is that apologies make people feel better. A 2010 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, found that receiving an apology has health benefits.

In the study, subjects were verbally harassed while performing math exercises. As subjects were harassed their heart rate and blood pressure rose. Following this verbal harassment, however, those who received an apology saw stress levels decline faster than those who did not, especially women.

Good Leaders Apologize for Mistakes

The popular notion that apologies signify weakness, see John Wayne above, is contradicted by research, which suggests that apologies may be a prerequisite for high quality leadership. Apologies and Transformational Leadership is one such study published by a team from Queens University (Canada) in the Journal of Business Ethics.

The team studied the effect of referees in amateur competitive league hockey apologizing to coaches. What the researchers found is that male ice hockey coaches rated referees who apologized for errors higher in leadership than those who did not.

How to Apologize Effectively

Heidi Grant Halvorson, associate director of Columbia University’s Motivational Science Center and author of Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, identified how to apologize effectively. What she found is that effective apologies often differ depending on the audience.

Apologizing to Strangers

While on vacation in Asheville, North Carolina my car was struck from behind by another car. The driver apologized but I wanted money to pay for the damage to my car.

Compensation is what strangers expect. Righting the balance may require cash, a promise, time, or some other form of remuneration. When you know you have to pay, remember that you are likely to pay less when you can sincerely say, “I am sorry.”

Apologizing to Friends

The people with whom we are in ongoing relationships - friends, family, spouses, and colleagues – are often less interested in compensation than a sincere expression of empathy. Empathy means putting ourselves in the shoes of another and understanding how our actions made them feel.

By listening to the other person we can understand what matters to them. If we do not listen, and instead focus on explaining or justifying ourselves, we risk making a bad apology. To apologize well, listen to the other person, take ownership of how you made them feel, and say, “I am sorry.”

Apologizing to the Team

Apologizing to teams, the public, customers, and other groups, with which we share common interest, requires something entirely different. The group wants to hear a clear acknowledgement that we violated the rules of the group, and will not do it again.

When public figures get this wrong they are criticized in the media. To avoid this, accept responsibility without equivocation, promise action so that it will not happen again, and say, “I am sorry.”


Research supports the benefit of apologies in improving outcomes. Apologies make strangers more likely to help us. Apologies discourage people from cheating us. And apologies cause injured parties to settle faster and demand less.

Good apologies work because they make people feel better. Bad apologies make people feel worse.

As business leaders, we need to know when and how to apologize well so that we can lead effectively and grow our business.

When it comes time to apologize, the first step is to understand our audience and what they need from us. Then say, “I am sorry.”