Saying sorry

I read two things recently which made me thoughtful.

The first was this TES magazine piece from Lisa Lockley, Assistant Head at John Willmott School in the West Midlands, about apologising. Lisa considers both saying sorry to students, and to colleagues, and she suggests:

“There seems to be a perception that apologising to a student (or even, at times, a colleague) is tantamount to admitting defeat or sacrificing our professional dignity. This could not be further from the truth.

Saying that we got it wrong – that we made a poor decision, that we reacted with poor judgement – makes us relatable and demonstrates to those we work with, from the classroom to the staffroom, that we act with honesty and integrity. It shows that we are dependable and credible.” 

When I became a head, twenty years ago now, I remember my initial address to the staff on the autumn term staff day. I had, of course, thought through what I wanted to say in advance, but when I stood up to speak, I found myself saying some things that I hadn’t necessarily planned, and one of them was this:

“The school where I was a deputy was, in a number of ways, similar to this one. But I’ve learnt that every school is different, and I’m aware that we can all have misleading assumptions. When I get it wrong – and I’m sure that from time to time I will – I hope you will tell me, and that you’ll be tolerant. I’ll try to learn from my mistakes, I’ll apologise and I’ll try to do better next time.”

I talked to my husband about this that evening, and I think he was quietly horrified at the ‘when I get it wrong…’ phrase, but I explained that it had just felt like the right thing to say. And later that first week, a member of staff told me that she had found what I said refreshing, and that it had sent the message that perhaps when others made mistakes, I would be similarly tolerant and understanding rather than harsh and judgmental.

In my ten years of headship I certainly did make some mistakes – and one of the things I learnt is that, when you make a mistake as a Head, it’s usually fairly public! You can’t just hope that people won’t notice! But I also learnt that those you lead don’t usually expect you to be infallible, as Lisa points out in her article. They do expect you to be honest. And the fact that you made a mistake actually isn’t what matters most. What matters most is how you respond to it, whether you are able to admit it, apologise if necessary, and learn from it so that you don’t make the same mistakes over and over again – and this is true of everyone, not just school leaders.

The second thing I read on the subject which struck me was something Susan Ferrier, then the global head of people at KPMG, was quoted as saying at a conference on women’s leadership. This was a conference organised by Ian Wigston of Bright Field Consulting, as part of a mentoring programme which he outlines in his book, ‘The Magic in the Space Between’.

These were Susan’s words:

When you do something dumb, fess up fast, say sorry and really say, ‘I’m really sorry’ and don’t make an apology which is like ‘I’m sorry but…’ then give all the caveats for why I’m truly not. Just come out with it and say, ‘I’m really sorry, that was not the best way to do things’. Own your own mistakes and move forward.”

I’m aware of how much courage it can take to do this. And I appreciate the paradox here – it can take strength and confidence to admit that you can see your own failings and errors, and that you regret them. Strong, principled leaders aren’t the ones who constantly try to give the impression that they are invincible.

And one last reflection. My first promoted post was as an Assistant Head of House, within a school where the pastoral system was house-based, a co-ed state comprehensive in the north west. This was in my fourth year of teaching, so I was a young and relatively inexperienced professional, certainly making mistakes and learning a huge amount. One of my responsibilities was to oversee the behaviour of the girls in my house, and to deal with disciplinary issues when they arose. I remember finding it challenging when I had to speak to girls who had behaved inappropriately for another member of staff, as, from time to time, I was called upon to do. But I wanted to support my colleagues, and I wanted to promote high standards of conduct and ensure the girls took responsibility for any mistakes they had made, learn from the experience and determine to do better next time. Occasionally it was particularly tricky because, investigating what had happened, I could see that the member of staff concerned perhaps hadn’t handled the situation quite as they should have done, and I could definitely understand and sympathise with the pupil’s point of view. That was always an interesting tightrope to navigate – and years later, Paul Dix’s excellent book about managing behaviour, ‘When the Adults Change, Everything Changes’, helped me to develop insights I wished I’d had at the start of my career.

But one thing I would never do, even at this stage of my career, was to ‘demand’ an apology – from a pupil, or, in fact, from a member of staff. Later in my professional life, as a Head of Department, Head of Sixth Form, Deputy Head and as a Head, I faced situations involving tension and conflict of all types, and there were several occasions in which someone – it might be a student, a colleague, a parent – insisted that one of the things they wanted was an apology from someone else. I always pointed out – even in my first role when I still had so much more to learn – that a forced apology is meaningless if the person giving it isn’t actually sorry at all; if they don’t regret their actions and don’t accept that they got anything wrong. I have been on the receiving end of forced apologies, from time to time, and in my view they don’t make the recipient feel any better!

So I would always talk this through with those involved and encourage them to reflect on whether they could take responsibility for getting something wrong. I’d ask them to consider whether, if they had to live through the experience again, they would do anything differently. Could they actually appreciate the other person’s point of view, and empathise with how they might have felt? I would ask them whether, if they did feel regret, they could see that saying sorry might actually help them, in addition to the person they were apologising to. And if they did feel sorry, and said so, could they ensure that this wasn’t the ‘sorry not sorry’ kind of apology Susan Ferrier describes above? As Lisa says:

“An apology is not a justification for what we have done, but a chance to acknowledge the impact and try to make amends. In doing this, we reaffirm our position as reliable, effective and in control.”

It’s a crucial way of trying to repair relationships and to move forwards towards a solution all parties can accept.

What do you think?

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4 thoughts on “Saying sorry

  1. This type of questions indeed is an eye opener.learning more and experiencing different knowledge of understanding and acquiring more skills.Very Educative and inspiring. Well done.Keep it up.


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