September 21, 2016

The Downside of Sorry

It is said that it takes a strong person to apologize.

I say it takes a stronger corporate culture to ensure that a person NEVER apologizes.

To understand what I mean by this we must first look at the behavioral tendencies we are all governed by. Within CultureSmith we use a simple, rather common color-coded matrix to highlight the compelling traits of each of the four main personality types and have assigned each a specific color; Yellow, Green, Blue and Red.

Yellows are said to be experiential, they are visionary and are primarily fascinated with anything new. Greens are said to be relationship driven and are primarily fascinated with the people impact that any decision will have. Blues are said to be process driven and have a deep appreciation for logic and order, while Reds are said to be results driven and are always looking for a way to maximize their time.

Knowing this you can begin to see the diametric opposition that these colors have. Yellows, in their quest for the new and exciting are big picture thinkers, and as such tend to not pay attention to or have appreciation for the details. This flies directly in the face of the Blues whose deep connection with process makes them feel uncomfortable and even resentful towards the Yellow who seems to have little data to back up their big ideas.

Reds in their pursuit of results can easily grow frustrated with the Green who is constantly pushing for a more humane, people-centric view of the issues. Investing the time to get every person to buy-in can be often viewed as an unnecessary waste by the time focused Red and the resulting "get on the bus" message causes Greens to bristle and disengage.

Inevitably, Red crosses paths with Green, Yellow with Blue, conflicting viewpoints slam into each other, someone feels as though they have been wronged, this wronging is voiced and an apology is issued. After all, it takes a strong person to apologize.

But really, what are they apologizing for?

For example, assume that a Yellow, in a moment of inspiration (the quintessential output of Yellow) comes up with an AMAZING new way of doing things. In her excitement, she commits to her team to have a working prototype of said idea in place within two weeks. The Blue on her team, the person responsible for actually ensuring this prototype is adopted by the team after its construction, makes note of the date and moves on to other work.

Over the course of the following two weeks, while working on her AMAZING idea, the Yellow uncovers an even more AMAZING way to make her AMAZING idea the living embodiment of the word AMAZING (if you work with a Yellow you know what I’m talking about here. We politely refer to this within our clients as SOS; Shiny Object Syndrome.). Her inspiration is at an all-time high and ideas are just flowing from her. She is in the zone and more engaged in her work than she has ever been. So engaged in fact that not only has she not realized that the two week self-imposed deadline she has announced to the team has passed, she has also failed to realize that she has yet to inform the team that her AMAZING idea has hit another level of AMAZING and the product she will deliver is no longer the product she promised but something much better.

This of course has wreaked havoc with the Blue. Blues have a strong fascination factor with Information. If they are missing a piece of it, it is emotionally unconformable for them. When the delivery date comes and goes, the Blue is left without information. He does not know the product is now better. He does not know how thoroughly engaged the Yellow is and how she has never been a better soldier for this company than she is now. All he knows is that the information he was given does not line up with the information he now has and it has left him feeling uncomfortable.

Now, something else must be understood implicitly at this point. We as people, all of us; Yellow, Green, Blue and Red alike, are emotional animals. While we may show these emotions in different ways our emotions drive our behaviors. Given that, we will always work to satisfy our emotional needs. Sometimes, we do this in very constructive fashions, but in other instances, instances like the one above, we chose a slightly more destructive path.

So, the Blue is now feeling uncertain, something that is massively off-putting for him emotionally and his subconscious is now working overdrive to make the discomfort go away. Because it is a person that has caused his discomfort his uncertainty leads to irritation and possibly resentment which in turn results in him “calling out” the Yellow.

How could she not live up to her commitment? How could she not respect process and timelines? A business cannot function this way. Does she not know what this does to my job, to my life, to ME?

The frustration hits its threshold with the Blue and he addresses it with the Yellow and the Yellow, now emotionally triggered herself does the first thing that hits her to make her own pain go away…she apologizes.

But again I’ll ask, what is she apologizing for?

All she was doing is what she was supposed to be doing; being Yellow. The company will benefit a great deal from her Yellowness and if we ask her to be more Blue, to follow the process, she does so at the expense of Yellow.

By apologizing for being Yellow, she is essentially saying that Blue is more important than Yellow, which it is not. Blue is simply more important to the Blue.

At the same time this does not mean that Blue is any less important than Yellow; processes due in fact need to be followed for a business to thrive.

The truth of the matter is that in a healthy business Yellow and Blue are on an equal footing, the same equal footing they share with Green and Red. When we apologize however, we are shifting our color to a lesser stature within the culture and over time, everything great about our color, shrivels up and dies, harming the entire business as a result.

Which is why I am imploring everyone who reads this, to stop Apologizing.

Instead, I want you to start Acknowledging.

What’s the difference between Apologizing and Acknowledging? I assure you it is more than just semantics.

An apology is an emotional response to an emotional issue. Someone is hurt, they voice the hurt, you are in turn either hurt or filled with empathy for the pain you’ve caused, that feels icky and you want icky to go away so you say you’re sorry and everyone feels better right then and there.

However, the problem has not been addressed.

An acknowledgement is a rational response to an emotional issue. When you acknowledge what you have done, and how that may have caused issues for someone else, it forces you to actually analyze their perspective. Instead of subconsciously seeking a knee-jerk response to make your discomfort go away temporarily, you are forced to actually start looking at ways for you to make someone else’s discomfort go away potentially for good.

If you want your company to thrive, you need Yellow to be Yellow, Blue to be Blue and so on and so forth. Any time spent apologizing for being what we are supposed to be is just plain dumb.

So the next time you’re about to say “I’m sorry” try on “I understand” instead. I think you will be far happier with the outcome long term.

(For anyone that wants to continue the discussion, feel free to comment here or email me directly at

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