Sorry? CEOs And Everyone Need To Learn To Apologise (Part I)

Apr 03, 2015 1 Min Read
CEOs apologising


A few years ago, I witnessed a scary sight. I was walking by the side of a road when a car suddenly cut out from nowhere into the main road, almost killing a motorcyclist. The motorcyclist was amazingly alert and miraculously swerved away. The car stopped and the motorcyclist immediately went over to the driver and started screaming.

The driver was a young woman who was obviously shaken by the whole incident. The motorcyclist was furious and yelled in extreme anger at her and she tried to explain that she really did not see him. Finally, she burst out in tears and exclaimed:

“What do you want from me?”

For the first time in about five minutes, there was silence. The motorcyclist was lost for words. I started thinking about a similar situation that occurred to me when a reckless driver almost hit me.

I never got to meet him and I only remember yelling inside the car in rage. I wondered if this same question was posed to me, how would I respond?

Obviously the “sin” had already been committed. The reckless driver could not go back in time and rewind the “deed.” Neither could this woman driver in the situation in front of me change history.

So, what did the motorcyclist want from all his yelling and ranting? After the strange momentary silence, the motorcyclist said:

“I want you to apologise.”

The woman apologised to him. He nodded, got on his bike and rode off. His anger had resided. As this scene ended, I realised, that was also exactly what I would have wanted from the reckless driver—an apology.

The magical apology

A few years ago, I met up with Marshall Goldsmith, the world’s foremost executive coach, whom I interviewed for our The Leaderonomics Show. One of the sidebar discussions we had was on the power of an apology.

He writes that “I regard apologising as the most magical, healing, restorative gesture human beings can make.” Marshall goes on to suggest that “a person’s refusal to express regret and to apologise” as one of the top 20 transactional flaws in business.

Watch my interview with Marshall Goldsmith on our Leaderonomics Show:

There is a lot of anger in the world of business today from frustrated employees, enraged customers, upset citizens and business leaders with pent-up anger from non-performing organisations.

Loads of anger everywhere, yet no one is apologising. No one is trying to douse the flame of anger.

Instead, everyone is triggering new flames by being defensive, argumentative and self-absorbed. And this is happening in many businesses today.

The power of an apology

About a decade ago, a large local bank made a mistake on my transaction. I tried to rectify the mistake by phone, but to no avail. I went over to the bank to resolve it, but instead of having a conversation, an argument ensued.

I was livid as I thought it would be simple to clear up the issue. Instead, the people at the bank became defensive and insisted that I had to go through a bureaucratic nightmare for what was simply a mistake made by the bank. And as this ensued, the hostility and anger grew.

After quietly pondering the whole episode, I resolved never to do any banking with it. Till today, I refuse to even entertain any personal banking request with this group. If only they had been sympathetic to my plight and apologised, things would be very different.

The same scenario plays out daily in many businesses. Many times, customers are lost in the process. Leaders play a huge role in setting the tone of being sympathetic and apologising.

Instead, we worry about liability. We finger-point, become defensive and avoid acknowledging our mistakes and thus never apologise. This resistance to apologising, leads to deeper resentment and ultimately causes much friction and pain.

There are huge financial benefits to saying sorry. In 2001, University of Michigan Health System encouraged health workers to report medical mistakes. (For full details of the programme, click here.)

As part of the programme rollout, doctors had to tell patients and their families about errors made, beginning with a sincere apology followed by explaining in detail how the error occurred and what steps were being taken to remedy the issues.

Instead of getting more lawsuits and legal claims, there was a reduction in the number of compensation claims and lawsuits and a significant reduction in overall legal costs.

Apologies work. Authentic, heartfelt empathy diffuses anger and builds relationships and drives business profitability. Alternatively, being defensive or refusing to admit mistakes creates anger and resentment.

Another study by the Nottingham School of Economics’ Centre for Decision Research and Experimental Economics clearly proves that an apology proved much more powerful than monetary compensation. (To read details of the study and the methodology used, click here.)

The study found that “people are more than twice as likely to forgive a company that says sorry than one that instead offers them cash.”

The study co-author Johannes Abeler added that the results proved apologies were both powerful and cheap.

He said:

“You might think that if the apology is costless then customers would ignore it as nothing but cheap talk – which is what it is. But this research shows apologies really do influence customers’ behaviour – surprisingly, much more so than a cash sweetener. It might be that saying sorry triggers in the customer an instinct to forgive – an instinct that’s hard to overcome rationally.”

Research that shows that apologies can result in better outcomes for wrongdoers in a number of legal settings. A further study shows that judges in courtrooms are influenced by offenders who say sorry. A landmark study by the University of Illinois law professors Jennifer Robbennolt and Robert Lawless, showed that in bankcruptcy cases, saying sorry often resulted in judges being more lenient.

So what does this mean for you as a leader in your organisation?

Read the second part of the story: Sorry? CEOs And Everyone Need To Learn To Apologise (Part II)

Click play to listen to the corresponding podcast:

For more Be a Leader articles, click here.

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Roshan is the Founder and “Kuli” of the Leaderonomics Group of companies. He believes that everyone can be a leader and "make a dent in the universe," in their own special ways. He is featured on TV, radio and numerous publications sharing the Science of Building Leaders and on leadership development. Follow him at


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