Fans started to gather as 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson and I stood in the infield before a NASCAR July 4 Daytona race, laughing about my attempt to follow his workout regimen for a week. One fan, running to cut the selfie-seeking gathering crowd barged into him from behind.
Johnson was knocked a little off balance. The fan stumbled and fell.
“I’m sorry,” Johnson said, helping the man to his feet. “Are you okay?”
Johnson clearly wasn’t at fault. If anyone needed to apologize it was the other guy.
To me, Johnson’s reaction was gracious and kind — and I gained even more respect for Jimmie.
Although science says that’s not what should have happened.
According to research described in the book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, “excessive” apologizing (like apologizing when you really don’t need to) can make others feel you lack competence or confidence.
On the flip side, a 2013 study published in The European Journal of Social Psychology found that people who refuse to express remorse maintain a greater sense of control and feel better about themselves than those who do not — even when they actually did make a mistake.
And then there’s this: A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology determined that apologies increased the recipient’s feeling of hurt and did not increase their level of forgiveness.
Science says we’re too quick to say, ‘I’m sorry.” It makes us look weak. It makes us feel worse about ourselves. And it doesn’t help.
Sorry, science, but that’s kinda BS.
Saying “I’m Sorry” Shows Confidence
Admitting a weakness makes you vulnerable, which means admitting a mistake requires a certain degree of confidence.
That’s especially true for leaders, since leaders are supposed to get things right.
Yet as Daniel Coyle writes in The Culture Code, admitting a mistake creates a vulnerability loop: When you say, “I’m sorry, I screwed that up,” other people then feel more comfortable admitting their own shortcomings. The result? Honest, open exchanges that build trust and drive improved performance.
Vulnerability loops give everyone on your team permission to admit a failing, admit a mistake, and show a little vulnerability of their own.
That puts the focus on getting better by learning from mistakes, not hiding them.
That process starts with you.
And it’s a process you need self-confidence to initiate.
Saying “I’m Sorry” Shifts the Focus
The gathering crowd visibly relaxed when Johnson said, “I’m sorry,” and helped the man up. He could have been upset. He could have been angry. He could have reacted much differently.
And quickly defused what could have been an uncomfortable situation for the individual involved and for everyone watching.
An act which required a greater, not a lesser, sense of self-control and self-esteem. It’s harder to take the hit or express remorse when you don’t feel good about yourself.
Stepping up, especially when you don’t need to, not only requires a certain level of self-esteem, it increases your self-esteem.
Because you overcame the urge not to step up.
Saying “I’m Sorry” Starts a Conversation
We all make mistakes, which means we all have things we need to apologize for: words, actions, omissions, failing to step in, to show support…
When that happens, say, “I’m sorry.” But never follow an apology with a disclaimer like “But I only got mad because you…” or, “But I did think what you did was…” or any other statement that shifts even the smallest amount of blame back onto the other person.
Say you’re sorry. Say why you’re sorry. Take the blame, even if you weren’t completely at fault blame.
Do that, and the other person is more likely to start to forgive. Do that, and the other person is more likely to say, “I’m sorry,” as well.
Do that, and then you can start to focus not on what happened, but on what can happen next time.
Which, if you think about it, is the true goal of any apology: To make things better, both now and in the future.
Even if some science doesn’t say so.