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Apologize to Your Stubborn Employees and You Won't Be Sorry

Whether you need a disaffected worker to start collaborating, or just to soften up, try some simple psychology: Offer a sincere, unsolicited mea culpa.
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If you have a mounting conflict with an employee, you don't want it to fester. Resentment can turn into mutiny--alienate a few staffers, and you may soon have an army against you.

That means you have to disarm that army. But being the boss doesn't mean you should force your employees to forgive you.  To be effective, your request for forgiveness needs to be sincere and unsolicited.

Mark Goulston, a business psychiatrist, says psychology can help you defuse tough situations with stubborn and hurt employees. Goulston writes in the Harvard Business Review that mirror neurons, which are located in the brain's premotor cortex and responsible for imitative behaviors, will fire when a person receives an apology.

"One of the things nearly all of us are defenseless against is a sincere, earnest, unsolicited apology," Goulston writes. And yet for the majority of people, it's disarming and intriguing enough to lower their guard to hear what the apologizer has to say."

See below for five steps to help make your apology count.

1. Ask the employee in person if he or she can meet, specifying that "I just realized that I owe you an apology." Goulston says that this unexpected interaction should pique their curiosity and make them agree to sit down with you.

2. Once the two of you are sitting together, pose this question: "Would you agree that we have come to different conclusions on a number of situations?" 

3. "If that's so, I owe you an apology because I have never taken the time or made the effort to understand how you came to the conclusions you have," Goulston advises you say. At this point, wait until the other person responds. "In all likelihood they will say nothing because they'll be too busy feeling a little disarmed and not knowing what to think," he says.

4. Next you wait a few moments and give them time to say something. But if a few seconds go by in silence, continue: "And furthermore I owe you another apology for something that I am not proud of. And that is that I never even wanted to understand your point of view, because I was so focused on pushing through my agenda. That was wrong and I am sorry." This shows them that you are taking responsibility for their negative feelings towards you, further disarming them and their toxic emotions toward you.

5. Now top it off: "And if you are willing to give me another chance, I would like to fix that starting now."

Goulston says that this strategy may not always work, but if you show respect, ask how they came to those conclusions about you, and tell them how you'll work to make sure it never happens again, your employees should come around. But remember: You are not manipulating them, you are being honest and open. Hopefully they will do the same and you can work out your differences.

Last updated: Mar 28, 2014

WILL YAKOWICZ | Staff Writer | Reporter, Inc.com

Will Yakowicz is a reporter at Inc. magazine. He has covered business, crime, and politics at Patch.com, and his work has been published in Tablet Magazine and The Brooklyn Paper. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.




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