Apologies Don’t Put the Worms Back in the Can, or the Words Back in Your Mouth

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Ordinarily, we try to have a positive focus in this blog, encouraging leaders to adopt or maintain practices that will coax the very best effort from their teams. As opposed to the usual “start doing this” stance, this post is one of the “don’t do that” variety.

Earlier this week, a political shock jock who is as loved by some as he is loathed by others made completely uncalled for and by most measures, out of bounds comments about the morality of a young female college student. Days later, at the point of spears held by his show’s advertisers, he issued something of an apology.

Though it is entirely appropriate to personally and genuinely apologize when you’ve stepped in it, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that an apology doesn’t undo the wrong. Acts of contrition may serve as salve for a wound we’ve created, but make no mistake – there is still a wound there. Only in Hollywood does the wound get undone and those who created it or got themselves voted off the island get to come back at season’s end.

The lesson here for leaders is that we must be very mindful of the fact that once we open a can of worms, it’s open. We can no more put worms back in the can than we can put uttered words back in our mouth. There a number of faux pas that our teammates in the workplace simply aren’t going to forgive, let alone forget, apology or not. Chief among them are the following:

  1. Lying – as in knowingly and deliberately misleading people
  2. Taking credit for the accomplishments of others
  3. Publicly reprimanding or embarrassing someone

In each case, we lose the benefit of the doubt both with the individual(s) involved and bystanders, and a good bit of their discretionary effort as well. Quite often, those losses are permanent. Don’t go there, please.

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