A Sincere Apology Saves the Day: Disarm Deadly Corporate Dysfunction Fast

Keith Martino

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"How do you apologize?"

The question came from the least likely suspect in the crowd.

Bob, a former LAPD detective, was now a seasoned IT leader for a global retailer. He had seen it all and had the scars to prove it. He was truly perplexed by the off-handed suggestion I had mentioned so casually. "If you let someone down, apologize," he said.

I thought his surprise inquiry was a joke. But Bob wasn't smiling. Neither were his peers.

At first, I chuckled then scanned the conference room for a hidden camera. I soon realized the detective had instinctively turned over the biggest clue of the day. This company was a large IT organization smoldering in distrust, resentment, and frustration.

Bob wasn't finished. "Can we practice apologizing?"

"Sure," I responded with a lingering tinge of disbelief. This surprise detour wasn't on our agenda that day.

Bob looked directly at a fellow executive and said, "Phyllis, I'd like to start with you." Phyllis was stunned. The tension between them was legendary. I couldn't believe what I'd inadvertently triggered. And that's when Bob fumbled the ball: "Phyllis, I . . . I . . . I guess I owe you an a-a-a . . . apology," he said with an uncomfortable stutter.

Instinctively, I pointed out to Bob that this statement was merely a fact—not an apology. Bob tried again and again until he had looked Phyllis in the eyes and expressed the healing words most needed.

Phyllis couldn't wait to return Bob's genuine gesture. Their sudden transparency set off a domino effect. Incredibly, we spent the afternoon with every member of the senior staff voluntarily stepping up and apologizing to one another. They apologized for missed deadlines, caustic remarks, and ego-crushing power plays.

It was riveting to see these grown men and women wiping back the tears as their peers humbly apologized for intentional and accidental blunders.

I left the session that afternoon scratching my head. Obviously, a force greater than me had been at work. Furthermore, Bob's initial apology ultimately saved that team from total implosion. When I returned to their corporate headquarters a month later, the smiles and warm collaboration were still going strong.

So, What's the Point?

If you sense dysfunctional behavior between individuals or departments, act now.

Dysfunction is deadly to companies, teams, and individuals.

Here are three proven steps to repair toxic relationships:

1. Politely raise the issue and challenge the people involved to set aside the past.

2. Demonstrate how to apologize to others correctly by selecting someone to whom you owe an apology. Sincerely apologize as they observe your actions.

3. Gain a commitment from your team that, when they let others down in the future, they will respectfully apologize immediately.

"How Do You Apologize?"

  • Look in the mirror, and ask yourself to whom you owe an apology.
  • Create a quiet encounter where you can look that person in the eyes and say, "I truly apologize for . . ." Be specific. Be clear. Be sincere.
  • Then, commit to doing your best in the future to never repeat that mistake.


Over the years, we've helped unravel varieties of corporate dysfunction. Typically, the more technical the team, the more frequent the number of personality clashes.

You don't need to be lead detective on the Los Angeles Police force to spot a dastardly dysfunction robbing your team of success, unity, and good vibes. The day Bob learned to apologize, his life got better. So did his leadership with colleagues, family, and friends.

When people are at odds, a sincere apology often saves the day!

Keith Martino is head of CMI—a global consultancy founded in 1999 that customizes leadership initiatives for technology companies and IT departments. Keith is the author of Expect Leadership in Technology.

After over 20 years and numerous awards at FedEx, Xerox, and Baxter Healthcare, Martino and his team provide world-class counsel and proven, web-based tools that produce consistent results for companies like Oracle, Verizon, and Peach State Technologies.

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