About fifteen years ago, I was fortunate to find myself working under a very capable and talented manager. What did I learn from him? The list is short: attention to detail, planning, execution, initiative and finishing the job. “Putting the ball in end zone,” as he often said. Any successful organization, such as the one in which we were working, is a dynamic environment.
Consequently, sometimes the balance between planning and execution, or execution and putting the ball in the end zone, would get out-of-whack.
At times like those, it became necessary to hold people accountable. This is when I learned another valuable lesson: praise in public, criticize in private. Genuinely praising a person’s performance in a public forum raises awareness of what tasks need to be done and how they should be done. It sets a positive example. Criticizing in private allows for dialogue and discussion that permits one to learn from one’s mistakes in a dignified manner.
From this life-lesson, I derived a formula for making or accepting apologies. I do not know if it is truly unique or whether it is just such commonsense that no one has ever bothered to write it down. However, I would like to share the three basic principles of it.
First, an apology – and its acceptance – should be sincere.
Second, an apology should be delivered (and accepted) in the same forum in which the original offense was given.
Third, the person apologizing should not repeat the original offending behavior and the person originally insulted should not return it in-kind.
I’ll try to expand briefly on these three rules.
An apology that is made solely with the intention to avoid worsening a situation or in order to escape an unfavorable outcome is not sincere. Likewise, making an apology but excusing one’s behavior on circumstances (I didn’t sleep well last night, I’ve been under pressure at work, I didn’t like what you were implying, etc.) is not sincere. For the recipient, it is often difficult to accept a sincere apology, particular if the offense is still fresh. A cooling down period is often necessary.
Secondly, if an offense is made publicly, it should be redressed publicly. To do otherwise can leave the impression that a particular form of non-acceptable behavior is, in fact acceptable. In contrast, if some sort of offending behavior occurs in private, it is best for both parties to settle the matter privately. There is no need for public spectacles ala the sobbing confessions that are all too readily available on afternoon television. One doesn’t need to go on the Opera Winfrey Show to say, “I’m sorry.”
Finally, repeating the insult – either publicly or privately – is an indication that the original apology was insincere.
I cannot say with all honesty that I have been able to live up to my own standard consistently. I won’t dismiss my own failure to be consistent with the cliché ‘We’re all human beings, we’re not perfect.’ Rather, I’d like to think that there is a level of perfection that we can all strive for, and that continuously striving for it helps all of us develop our potential more fully.