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‘I don’t want your excuses, I want your solution’

July 27, 2011

Do you ever have those  moments where you are full of self-righteous indignation, and then a bit later it morphs into humble regret, as you realise that actually, you were wrong.

Well, I had one of those last week. The original issue was pretty minor, but that didn’t stop me getting annoyed about it over the course of the week. It culminated in an exchange of terse emails – which is where my self-righteousness peaked.

When I got up to make a cup of tea, however, I realised I had actually screwed up. I was still right, I thought, about the original issue; but I also did something (to do with changing someone else’s work), where if I was on the other side, I would have cracked it too. (We writers are a fragile bunch sometimes).

So I went back and wrote a sheepish apology, which was both accepted and appreciated.

Today’s post, therefore, is about the value of a good old-fashioned ‘mea culpa’. Just putting your hand up and saying ‘yep, I messed that one up! Sorry!’.

Which isn’t to say all bad behaviour, sloppy work or careless mistakes should be swept away with an apology. Unfortunately though, a lot of people – from public figures through to people I know – find it hard to admit a mistake, apologise and move on.

I have been known to say to my team, in a tone that’s only half-joking in its severity, ‘I don’t want to hear your excuses, I just want to see your solution’. Because basically, nobody does want to hear your excuses. They may appreciate a brief explanation, but after that, they either want contrition, rectification – or both.

Most of the time, an apology is disarming. It often defuses a situation. Other times (and this happened to me not long ago), a heartfelt apology can be thrown back at you. Your courage and humility are wasted. But that happens less often, and it’s not a good enough reason to give up the practice altogether.

Admitting mistakes isn’t just a useful way to live, professionally and personally; it’s a powerful position for a company to take.

In the gold standard case studies of crisis management, the company realises the mistake and responds quickly, such as the Panadol extortion incident in 2000. While it wasn’t the company’s fault, it took responsibility and communicated openly.

Keeping quiet is the worst option. The best option is to ‘man up’ and fix it.

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  1. Esther permalink

    The “Oh crap, it was actually ME who was wrong” feeling. I know it well… This is on a slight tangent but the BBC journalist Tim Harford wrote a brilliant article recently on business growth that stems from mistakes, and how companies tend to become more risk-averse as they get bigger, which can be their downfall – I think you’d like it:

    • You know what, I helped someone write an opinion piece last week, entitled ‘Fail. We dare you’ – about the same thing!

  2. Solange permalink

    So, so true. When I was younger I was terrified of making mistakes, let alone admitting to them. And I made many! But one of my old bosses taught me something very valuable….”Solange, if you do screw up, share it as soon as possible, so we can fix it together.” Since then, I have no problem admitting to errors (but at the same time I’m also far more careful so I don’t make as many!)
    You’re right, people are very accepting of someone who can own up to their mistakes and take responsibility for them. It shows strength.

  3. There are different versions of apology, though. Someone close to me has an issue with “S..S..S..orry”, but I just know that when there has been a disagreement, then they change the subject and speak about the new topic lightly, it means “Yep, I wasn’t right, not saying I was wrong, but I’m just gonna move on and you will get the gist of it, won’t you?”. That’s as good as an apology to me.

    • Funny, I live with someone like that too. And if I am honest, I would probably get a bit weirded out if I did get a gushy apology.

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