Home > Leadership, The Monday Musings Column > when you need to, saying sorry is the only option

when you need to, saying sorry is the only option

Reports down here in North Wiltshire of local footballers apologising for their behaviour got me thinking a bit about saying sorry. It isn’t an easy thing to do in private, let alone in public, but it is something that a leader has to face up to from time to time. And if apologising for something you said or did is hard enough, what about saying sorry for something that you didn’t say or do?

Many years ago in one of my jobs I ran a large operation with around 350 people employed in various industrial and clerical roles. It was the last full working day before Christmas and in the canteen my colleagues and I had served lunch to the workers. Everyone was in a festive mood as I walked the floor during the afternoon with my right hand lady.

On one section, while my partner was talking to a couple of the team another member, a young lad (I’ll call him Fred for the sake of the story) who was normally fairly reticent,  rushed over to me, shook my hand vigorously and wished me season’s greetings. I returned the wishes, Fred went back to work and I wandered over to my right hand lady and the people she was talking to. “What did Fred want?” they asked. “Just seasonal greetings” I told them, “He seems full of the Christmas spirit”. We finished there and worked our way around the rest of the operation finishing our tour just as people started to go home for the day.

The next morning I could feel that something was wrong as soon as the place got going. We were only working a part day as it was Christmas Eve and I was under pressure with things like getting the next weeks payroll signed off; a short week means one less day to do a week’s work at times, but the feeling that something was up was still in the air.

My door was always open, but a knock made me look up to find one of the union reps stood there needing a word. He told me that I had apparently accused Fred of being drunk the previous afternoon and that, as Fred and his family were strict teetotal, the accusation had been taken badly.  I told him what I had really said, but he was adamant that the word on the floor was that I had told some of Fred’s co-workers that he was drunk.

There was nothing else to do but to get down there and talk to Fred, but he didn’t want to see me. The people that I had spoken to the previous afternoon confirmed what I had said, but this was one of those cases where my words had been adjusted in the re-telling and people believe what they want to believe.

It was clear that my union man was right and something needed to be done to turn things around. There and then I stopped the operation and called a mass meeting. When we had everyone gathered I climbed up onto a pallet and made a public apology to Fred, explaining that my words had been misunderstood, but that I was sorry that I had said something that had been taken as a slur on his character.

Fred and I shook hands and by the time Christmas was over things were largely forgotten. Would it have blown over anyway? Maybe, but dealing with it quickly defused a tense situation. When in doubt, an apology usually works, even when you don’t think you should have to make one.

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