Berthoud Consulting

Berthoud Consulting

When Private Apologies Don’t Work

The meeting was interrupted by an outburst from the leader to a subordinate. Whatever the person said or did to deserve that tongue lashing was a mystery. Had she broken the leader’s train of thought? Contradicted him? Offered an idea he didn’t like? Spoken one too many times? No one knew, but the effect of the dressing down was immediate. The group was silent, exchanging furtive glances instead of potential solutions for the project. The meeting ended quickly. Later the leader realized that he’d been brusque and called the employee to apologize. By his reckoning, he’d patched things up and reset relations, right? Wrong.

I’ve seen this scenario too many times to count but the private apology for public action doesn’t work. Why? Because although one staff person was the direct target of the dressing down, the rest of the meeting participants were indirect targets and just as traumatized. Each witness knows he or she could have been the one humiliated and, while there may be immediate relief for having escaped a direct hit, there’s also a clear sense of danger.

People can respond to the situation in several ways. One option is to become docile in the hope of not offending the leader. This strategy may bring a cold peace, but it doesn’t generate creativity or flag potential problems. Another option is to distance themselves from the target. Here people rationalize why the person deserved the treatment she received. They may shun the target for fear of attracting similar reactions. Or they may try to counsel the target back into conformity and low risk behavior — “Just sit quietly, as we do, and wait for the meeting to end.” Sometimes people make excuses for the boss — “That’s just the way he is.” And sometimes they identify with and model themselves after the boss, perpetuating abuse in their domains and supporting a culture of intimidation.

None of these likely responses leads to cohesion, productivity, and effectiveness, except in the instances where the group unites against the leader. Moreover, the leader is often oblivious to the dynamic because his actions all but guarantee that no one will give him the information he needs to develop productive relationships. Who among the group members will contradict him now?

The leader missed an opportunity to build the group and his leadership. The fact that he did express regret indicates that he knew something was amiss. The mistake was in apologizing privately for an action that happened in public. It’s important to recognize that the immediate target was one among many. Better to apologize to the full group at the next meeting or in some other way, to acknowledge the potential damage done to all group members and the group as a whole.

  • How have you reacted when you’ve witnessed a public dressing down? What did you think, feel, or do?
  • What was the impact of the incident on the group?
  • As a leader, what was your motivation for a private apology? What did you intend to accomplish? What did you actually accomplish?


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