-by Marius van Dijke

There was a time when being the boss meant never having to say sorry. If you’d bawled someone out for the wrong reason or taken an employee’s work for granted, for example, well that was just too bad for them. After all life was tough and no-one really expected the workplace to be fair and just.

However, the old “command and control” idea of leadership which nurtured this approach to people management has been consigned to the rubbish bin of corporate history. Instead, business leaders at all levels are nowadays expected to engage, to understand, to motivate. And not to act as if they were running a Victorian factory or a penal colony.

So if you are genuinely in the wrong, no matter how senior you are, surely the best thing is to simply say sorry. After all, we are all human and everyone makes mistakes sometimes. And if you don’t apologize, then it’s logical to assume that your people will harbor grievances, that they may not believe what you say in the future and that they may find ways – subtle or otherwise – of withdrawing their all-important support and co-operation.
However, while confessing that you are as fallible as the next person may seem both laudable and effective, is it actually going to win your staff over? According to a study I recently carried out together with Laura Giurge at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), the answer seems to be a disappointing and dispiriting “no.”

The problem seems to lie in the fact that whether you are the sort of caring, sharing leader the modern workplace cries out for or the over-bearing tyrant of the past, the default setting for subordinates is not to trust you. Put simply, if you have power over someone then no matter how sincere you may sound (or actually are, for that matter) then they are likely to assume you are acting on some hidden agenda of your own. And one that, quite possibly, doesn’t have their best interests at heart. Newly appointed Nobel prize winner, Bob Dylan, might have incited people not to “follow leaders”, but it seems many in the workplace have now gone one step further and don’t believe them either.

Assuming that despite your impressive job title and the power you can exercise over subordinates, you are actually humble enough to admit mistakes in the best interests of a harmonious team, how do you go about tackling this potentially damaging cynicism?

The solution, like all good and effective solutions, is of course not an easy one and will require time, effort and commitment. But it will work.
Too many leaders fall into the trap of focusing on window dressing as opposed to real substance. The “we’re all in this together” type of speech, which only serves to conjure up episodes of The Office. The over-familiar newsletter or intranet. Or the sort of team-building exercise which tries to turn office workers into fire-walkers or members of the Special Forces. However, what is really needed is the creation and sustenance of a working environment which is open and honest, where communication is plentiful, relevant and reliable. An environment where the leader is proving on a day-to-day basis that they can be trusted and believed by both words and actions. Only then will a sincere apology from that leader be taken in the spirit in which it is actually offered.

And it’s never too soon to start, as Evan Spiegel, the 26-year old co-founder of Snapchat, acknowledges. With a reputation for an unfiltered leadership style, he admits that one of the areas that he is trying to improve is apologizing when he makes mistakes. A photo snap may only last for 10 seconds on the image messaging site, but saying sorry and meaning it will last a lot longer.

Tough to accomplish? Of course. But worth doing? Absolutely.

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