If I see a need for a coaching client to repair and rebuild relationships, I often recommend what I call an “apology tour.” This is an important and powerful tool that is used to extend thoughtful, sincere apologies to the individuals who were impacted. It is also to take accountability for one’s actions – even if you may have been blind – unaware of the impact of them at the time. 

What is an Apology Tour? 

An apology tour is a series of one-on-one meetings in which the individual takes accountability for their actions and to apologize to the people affected by them. The intent is of the apology tour is not designed to seek a different outcome. Nor is its intent to receive a reciprocal apology. The intent of an apology tour is simply to create a foundation to rebuild damaged relationships. 

When to Make an Apology

We often make apologies when we display some uncharacteristic behavior, we misunderstand what was asked of us, or when we create an inconvenience for someone. You mess up, you say you are sorry – it is not representative of who you are as a person. It’s an outlier. It happens to everyone and hopefully, it is just a rare occurrence. These are what I call one offs, and while they do require an apology, these minor transgressions generally do not warrant an apology tour because they do not impact the foundation of relationships. 

There is another kind of behavior, however, that can have a profound impact on other people, and this is when I recommend an apology tour. This typically happens when I have a coaching client who has had a very impactful 360-review which surprised them. A 360-degree review is based on an employee self-assessment and peer reviews, as well as superior and subordinate feedback. The surprise results from blind spots to their own performance which could range from how they treat others to their ability to listen to their need to drive and push initiatives forward without regard to the humans involved. When relationships are unintentionally impacted, especially if it’s repetitive, your colleagues, superiors and direct reports will form strong assessments of who you are. If those assessments are negative, it might be necessary for an apology tour to begin to rebuild those relationships.

Related: What to Do if You are Surprised by Your Performance Review

Prepare for the Apology

I collaborate with these leaders on how to make an effective apology. First, they make a list of the people who they think were impacted by their actions, they make a list of the people they do not like, and they make a list of the people who do not like them. Sometimes a person shows up on one list, sometimes they are listed on all three. Then, we engage in deep conversations about each person on the list who they believe they may have impacted.

We go through exercises to identify why the leader does not like these people and why these people do not like the leader. This requires some heavy lifting. We identify the ones who trigger the leader the most. Then, I have the leader schedule a one-on-one meeting with each person on the lists. We go over how those conversations will play out, and how the leader must approach them with deep sincerity and authenticity. The leader must also be an active listener and must not come to the table with any bit of defensiveness for these conversations. 

How to Make an Authentic Apology

The timing of your apologies is critical because every day you wait, it deepens the damage done. So, do it when there is relevancy. Conduct your apology tour in face-to-face meetings if possible. I have even directed people to fly to different cities to do this, depending on the importance of the relationship. If that’s not possible, video conference is second best so that body language can still exhibit the humanness of the apology. A phone call is your last resort. Email should only be used to introduce the idea of the meeting and schedule the one-on-ones. 

I recommend apologizing privately. There are times a public apology may be needed but those are far less common. If you have impacted an entire team, you would go to the leader first and ask if you can address the group in a meeting so you can apologize. 

Make sure your body language is in alignment with your sincerity. People will be able to read whether you are simply doing this as a “check the box” item versus whether you are sincerely apologetic. To be effective, you must exhibit and express remorse. 

Do not use “ifs” or “buts” in your apologies. “I’m sorry if you feel” is not an apology. I am sorry that (fill in the blank) but (fill in the blank) is not an apology. Take full ownership. 

Here is the five-step process of authentically apologizing (which is also listed in my best-selling book Leading Lightly):

  1. State what you failed to do and apologize to everyone involved. 
  2. Take full responsibility. 
  3. Acknowledge the breakdowns you must have caused for others. 
  4. Ask what actions can be taken to repair the damage that was done. 
  5. Make a new promise, if appropriate. 

What makes an apology tour different from a simple apology is not only the volume of apologies you make but the intent behind them. You must have zero expectations. That means you cannot even expect the recipients to accept your apology, much less change an outcome because of it. An apology tour offers an intent to repair relationships and not continue the behavior that led to the apology in the first place. You want to show empathy, respect, thoughtfulness, and a sincere desire to be conscious in the moment. 

Why Should You Want to Apologize?

Relationships are especially important, whether up, down or across your organization, so there is a myriad of reasons why you should want to apologize on a tour. Here are some important ones:

  • You want to rebuild trust.
  • You do not want to damage your professional brand.
  • You want to decrease stress, tension, and conflict so you can regain productivity as a team. 
  • You want to deescalate a situation.
  • Failing to apologize could limit your future trajectory in the company. The person(s) affected could share their negative assessment with many others which can impact how you are perceived by those you don’t even have a working relationship with.  
  • It will demonstrate that you can take accountability and can own your mistakes. That will help people see you as someone who takes ownership, has self-awareness, and is easy to work with. 
  • You want to embody reliability and integrity, which are important components of leadership. 
  • It showcases your emotional intelligence and maturity. 
  • It can turn a negative situation into a positive result. 

A Successful Apology Tour

I recently worked with a client who pulled off the most successful apology tour I have ever seen in my career, and I use his story with other clients who are facing the same situation. 

Brian had held a very demanding job at a prominent biotech company for over a decade. He was tasked with driving transformational change but faced off against some leaders who were at odds with some of the changes he was making. He thought he was delivering on the needs of the business, but others perceived him as losing sight of the people involved and steamrolling to move the agenda forward. These allegations became known during a 360-review, and Brian was devastated. He realized that while he was delivering results, how he thought he was showing up was not at all how he was being perceived by his team and colleagues. 

Brian was working with some of the most senior leaders in the company and did not even think it was possible for him to steamroll his colleagues. He had always prided himself on his interpersonal relationships, and this debrief uncovered massive blind spots.  

While the feedback was a lot to process, this all was a bit easier to digest since Brian had recently taken JMA’s Accountability Mirror workshop, which reveals what true accountability is, why it is critical to a leader’s success and how to create it. Because he was already aware of how to be accountable and had internalized the stages of leadership, Brian did not search for excuses when confronted with the feedback. Instead, he could sit with the feedback and understand that is not how he wanted to show up and feel sincere in his desire to repair in an apology. 

He also understood he would be embarking on an apology tour not for a transactional outcome or to try to get a different result or even to get people to forgive him. Instead, he wanted to have authentic conversations to own his mistakes and blind spots, and show his team he was changing for the better. 

Brian began by sending his senior leaders a note thanking them for participating in the 360-review and letting them know he found their feedback to be eye opening and humbling. He apologized initially via email and acknowledged that he was not showing up as his best self or in the way that he thought he was. He didn’t make excuses and simply owned it. Finally, he asked for the opportunity to share more in one-on-one meetings with each leader. During those meetings,  he used the steps of an effective apology. 

These meetings were uncomfortable for Brian, of course. But there was one profound meeting with one of the senior most leaders that he says he will forever remember. He shares that memory with us:

“I started off by saying I am sorry. She asked what I took away from the 360-feedback, and I owned it. I gave raw examples about myself, and I was truly authentic. I never once assigned blame, I never once excused my behavior. I told her I had been blinded by the company’s goals and mission and what I thought I was there to achieve. But I realize now that in the process I lost sight of you – and others – and your feelings. I acknowledged how I made her feel and expressed sincere remorse for my actions – never once giving excuses, and rather simply owned it. At that moment, the energy in the room shifted completely, and my colleague softened. She told me she was grateful for my apology, and she understood how hard this was for me to do. We ended up having an hour-long conversation about how we wanted to partner together in the future. It was extremely emotional and personal and there were even some tears shed. That conversation and how it shifted our relationship imprinted on me,” said Brian. 

When you do an apology tour correctly, it is truly an intimate act because you are being authentic and vulnerable. But it can only be effective if you have already done the work on your own accountability. The goal of the tour is to take accountability, to acknowledge where you have not shown up as the leader you want to be. 

And Brian says it is not a one-time act. You need to continue to deliver and model behavior on an ongoing basis. He says he sees the apology tour as a start, but not a finish. He also manages to apply the concept of an apology tour to his personal life and has even done one with his teenage children. Once you learn this muscle of mental fitness, it’s possible to take it forward every day. Brian says this knowledge has changed not just his career but his entire life.  

Could an apology tour repair important relationships in your life? If you would like help starting your own apology tour, an executive coach can provide the framework for your success, just like Brian’s. 

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