Being Chair Means Having to Say You’re Sorry

One of the claims I make on this blog is my intention to share lessons learned.  In almost five years as chair, I have learned many lessons, some of them the hard way.  Two of the hardest?  Having the good sense to apologize when it is warranted and knowing when not to.

Apologizing has negative cultural connotations that equate it with weakness.  When coupled with positions of leadership or authority, it becomes that much more complicated.  And yet we know, for example, that when doctors apologize for their mistakes (when warranted, of course), the incidence of malpractice and the size of claims sought both decrease.  While many of the victims of these mistakes want financial compensation, it turns out they also want something less tangible, and yet quite powerful: an acknowledgement that a mistake was made.

Thankfully, as department chairs we do not hold people’s lives or physical health in our hands, but that does not excuse us from acknowledging our mistakes.  My most embarrassing mistakes tend to be of a particular kind: responding too quickly (and usually with some anger attached) or responding without adequate information or some combination of these two (the corollary to the apology lesson, then, is wait to send that email!–more on this in a future post).  When I first became chair I was reluctant to acknowledge these mistakes because I thought it would compromise my authority.  But I quickly learned that I gain nothing from doing something like this and then trying to cover it up, excuse it, or pretend it didn’t happen.  I own it, apologize, move forward, and try to learn from it.  Doing so does not seem to have harmed my relationships with colleagues or students.  In fact, after my first few insecure years of full-time teaching, I became increasingly willing to admit when I didn’t know the answer to a question posed by a student.  I would also, however, find an answer to that question and report back during the next class.  Student evaluations have often commented on this favorably, noting my willingness to say when I don’t have a ready answer.  Humility may trump the supposed weakness attached to apologies.

There is, however, a problem that lies at the other end of the spectrum: apologizing too much or for the wrong things.  Oddly enough, I am also capable of this.  My desire to keep the peace and minimize conflict often leads me to offer unnecessary apologies or to apologize for things that are not my fault.  This is equally dangerous.  Apologies that are not genuine or necessary can be read as weakness, or at the very least as unwise.  And this probably explains why a sincere, humble, and warranted apology is well-received and doesn’t necessarily compromise the apologizer’s status or reputation.  Additionally, if you are someone constantly offering apologies, the chances are good that the ones that are sincere and necessary won’t fall on receptive ears.  Don’t be the chair who cried “Sorry!”  But do be the chair that has the grace to accept and acknowledge when you get it wrong.

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