How to Make a Good Apology

Moral leaders get their apologies right. Top-tier moral leaders are more likely to apologize authentically and take meaningful responsibility.

The research in the December 2022 State of Moral Leadership in Business report confirms that the imperative for moral leadership is more urgent than ever. Data collected from 2,500 employees across a variety of sectors in the United States, demonstrates a deep desire to work with and for moral leaders.
In our analysis, we asked people about not only the frequency, but the merit of the apologies they received from their managers. We not only found that top-tier moral leaders were more likely to have employees who have seen them apologize, but those who have seen their manager apologize are more likely to recommend their organizations as good places to work.
Top-tier moral leaders accept responsibility instead of searching for excuses, and they take further action by asking questions about the personal and organizational values that allowed the offense to take place, seeking feedback from those who were wronged, and committing to avoiding the same mistake in the future.
Data graphic that show 98% of employees with managers who rank as top-tier for moral leadership are more likely to have seen their manager apologize. 70% of all employees report having seen their manager apologize.
Data graphic which shows that among employees who have seen their manager apologize 90% are more likely to recommend their organization as a good place to work. Among employees who have not seen their manager apologize on 65% are likely to recommend their organization as a good place to work.

Authentic apologies are about a lot more than just saying, “I’m sorry.” Even if you mean it.

Apologies may be well-intentioned attempts to heal a relationship, yet even in these scenarios, they can still come across as a verbal escape route or a self-centered attempt to gain back something that was lost. And even the act of an apology itself can be an affront if the apologizer incorrectly assumes they had the influence and power to cause another individual harm in the first place.
The more malign apology is of the manipulative sort. At best, the manipulative apology is that half apology we’ve all heard, “I’m sorry if what I did hurt your feelings.” At worst it’s the extremely self-deprecating apology that makes the apologizer into the victim.
Moral leaders recognize the importance of meaningful apologies regardless of formal title or position. They don’t wait till they “make it” to be humble in the face of ethical mistakes and they don’t apologize looking for something in return. A meaningful apology is a burden without a preconceived reward and demonstrates ethical leadership.
When a leader breaks a promise, or damages a relationship, they need to earn back trust and change their behavior in a way that demonstrates, without question, that they mean it. Recognizing and naming the error starts a process of recovering trust that was lost, but identification isn’t enough. Apologizing is an exercise in vulnerability. Demonstrating a willingness to be open about one’s shortcomings also reminds us that we are all human, allowing us to feel seen and grow closer.
A numbered graphic listing the five parts of an authentic apology: 1. be vulnerable 2. be authentic 3. conduct a moral audit 4. open a two-way dialogue 5. move from regret to change