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Profiles in Cowardice: The art of the business apology

An apology can make all the difference
An apology can make all the difference

"Never apologize…it's a sign of weakness." John Wayne, arguably the quintessential "man's man" uttered these words in the 1942 film, "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon." This forceful statement has become an entrenched and oft repeated adage over the years.

But, is it true? Well, it likely depends on the situation at hand. In business, strength is often viewed through the prism of management and profits; an individual is seen as strong if he or she manages fairly and wisely but with a firm hand; increasing profit margins and decreasing losses (especially in the current economic environment). Strength has, until recently, been attributed to men in business, whereas women were seen as more malleable, nurturing and willing to compromise, in a word, weaker.

Granted, there are still a good number of glass ceilings out there women must shatter, and when it comes to communication study after study proves women apologize far more often than men. Until recently, this trait was widely judged, mostly by men but a good number of women as well, as an inherent sign of weakness and an innate willingness to fold on the important issues, in a word, cowardice.

But, with the advent of women in business and high profile female CEO's of major firms such as Patricia Woertz of Archer Daniels Midland, and Irene Rosenfeld of Kraft Foods; along with strong women in political positions of power such as Condoleezza Rice and Hilary Clinton, previous and present Secretaries of State, this assertion of women as the weaker and frailer sex loses much of its potency.

So, regardless of your gender, should you apologize in a business context? Absolutely, if warranted, according to Richard Carlson, PhD., author of "Don't Worry, Make Money." Dr. Carlson, a bestselling author and business consultant unequivocally states, "many people never apologize. They are too self-conscious, self-righteous, stubborn or arrogant to do so. The unwillingness to apologize is not just sad, it is a serious mistake as well." He goes on to assert "the ability to apologize, to admit mistakes, is a beautiful human quality that brings people closer together and helps us succeed. By simply acknowledging our humanness and saying ‘I'm sorry' when appropriate, we bond with others and increase their trust in us."

Essentially, Dr. Carlson is advocating that a sincere and heartfelt apology can not only rectify an otherwise tenuous business scenario, it can actually increase your business, contacts, and opportunities. Dr. Carlson further illustrates this edict by stating "when you apologize from your heart, you keep most of your existing doors open. Occasionally, you may even open doors that had previously been closed." He goes on to cite several examples of this belief in action within his excellent treatise.

A Google search on business apologies yields over 5,560,000 results. Astounding on its face, but not surprising considering Dr. Carlson's observation that humans are imperfect beings at best.

Let's face it, folks. Apologizing is never easy, whether it be for a personal transgression or a business faux-pas. It can be difficult to assume responsibility for your actions at times. However, the resulting effect both on an internal basis and in a business context can prove both fulfilling and rewarding.

At the end of the day, apologizing without good reason to do so is never wise. Conversely, however, apologizing when it is appropriate and warranted is always a good idea. I assure you that you will NOT be viewed as a coward, but rather perceived as having the strength of your convictions and character.

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