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I was reading a reddit post on a scene from Star Trek: TNG. One of the responses was of particular interest:

... apologizing to a subordinate officer in front of other staff would mean failing to maintain decorum on the bridge and a huge failing in a Captain. Asking him if he's ready to return to duty is recognized as an apology not only by Wesley but to everyone who witnesses it, because they're all aware of the protocol.

The answer is summed up as this being the correct action because of protocol.

What is meant by an apology in this context inappropriate? Is it merely suggesting that an apology should be made it private and not on the bridge or in front of other staff? I'm particularly interested in a better explanation of it being a failure to "maintain decorum".

I understand that the example is fiction but my question is with regard to the comment and how a situation like this might occur in the workplace; for a better understanding on how to act within a management position. I would also welcome comments on additional real-world examples of similar situations for clarity.

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    Good question. I don't know. I actually think we build a stronger team by showing we are able to apologize to a subordinate in front of other staff, but who knows. Perhaps in a military situation, this would be less appropriate? – Teacher KSHuang Mar 6 '17 at 8:07
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    Surely "decorum on te bridge" is something that's specific to the show? I doubt the kind of culture/discipline you'd have on a military-scientific spaceship has any real-world analogy or fits our customary definition of a workplace. As far as I know we don't cover military workplace conflicts either and that's probably the closest match culture-wise. I'd recommend simply removing the inspiration behind your question and editing it down to a simple "When and how should a manager apologise to his report(s)?". Focus on the "apologising in public" angle if the general question is too broad. – Lilienthal Mar 6 '17 at 9:08
  • @Lilienthal it depends on where you are serving. If you're serving in the US Navy in a low-visibility operation, such as, say, a gunboat in a remote location, the rules are going to be somewhat relaxed vs a high-protocol, high visibility operation such as a battleship, where protocol is observed to painstaking detail. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Mar 6 '17 at 13:56
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    It's worth to note that most (good) employees will get motivated by a humble act from a boss, like publicly apologizing for a mistake. It helps to see the boss as a close human being and not a super-powered being trying to screw you up for every little mistake. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Mar 6 '17 at 14:19
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    Not acknowledging when your obviously wrong is silly, no matter the position. You undermine your own authority by not correcting yourself. Who can trust a leader who can't show that they can admit their wrong? No human in history has ever made 100% correct choices. – Mark Rogers Mar 6 '17 at 17:06
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I think your example stems from the fact that the fictional character is part of a military organization. Any time safety is a thing, you need officers whose orders are followed and not questioned. Or rather questioned in private after the situation is dealt with. That goes for real world army, police, firefighters, paramedics, rescue workers and all other people that work in environments where when someone says "MOVE" you move first and think about it later, to not get hurt. So apologizing in public means you allow people to think you might fail and it might be a good idea to question your orders, even for a split second thinking about them. That's not seen as good, it's seen as something that might make you doubt an order and hinder it's proper execution. And in the end, those orders are given to bring you (the statistical "you", it might put the personal "you" in danger first) home safely.

Now for the business world, this does not apply. We can question the "orders" all the time. This is how good decisions are made. And nobody is in danger. On the bridge of the Enterprise, thinking about whether "shields up" is really the right thing to do can lead to a very spectacular and fast end of the season. Now if someone thinks about his bosses business decisions for an hour, nobody is getting hurt. And if it indeed was a wrong decision, there is no harm in apologizing.

If somebody thinks I can make mistakes, maybe he will jump in to correct them next time before I do something stupid. Apologizing is a sign of respect and in business, you have the time to show that respect.

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    Further to that, if you work in a business where safety is a thing, then the principle of FMEA is: "You've already made a mistake. List every mistake it's physically possible to make, and work out the consequences of each one." You don't get to say "but I wouldn't make that mistake", unless you can add a reason why something would stop you; and generally that something is an independent person who can check what you're doing, call you on what they think is wrong, and make their comments stick. – Graham Mar 6 '17 at 13:18
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    This is certainly the case for paramedics. When I trained, we were encouraged to discuss our mistakes with our partner after the incident, but we were told that during an incident - especially an incident where the public are involved - it's more important to just do what you're asked to do (or to unapologetically correct yourself if you've made a mistake) and think later. – ArtOfCode Mar 6 '17 at 13:39
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    I come from a military family, you are 100% correct in your analysis. Military, and Emergency Services, are not the same as private sector. In the private sector, it's praise in public, correct in private. In the military, it's maintain discipline and protocol. Discuss matters privately. Two VERY different ways to do things. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Mar 6 '17 at 13:52
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    Now for the business world, this does not apply. We can question the "orders" all the time. => You might want to keep internal disagreements at a minimum in front of clients though... – Matthieu M. Mar 6 '17 at 14:56
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    @Johnny How many crashes have been avoided by doing what they were told? – jpmc26 Mar 7 '17 at 0:51
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Of course, it depends on the situation in hand and it's up to the manager how to apologise in the most appropriate manner.

Apologies can also show a level of humility and trust in a manager's team and can be seen as a constructive thing. No one really likes a manager who refuses point blank to admit that they're wrong.

However, if the bad decision was something at the corporate strategy level, then it becomes a lot harder to apologise.

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Unless the apology involved referring to sensitive data that other people aren't allowed to know about, I don't think so.

In my view, it doesn't diminish someone's respectability or authority as a manager if they can admit mistakes the made openly. (Everyone makes them, seriously everyone). Quite the opposite in fact.

Mind you, this is for a business context, not a millitary context.

In a millitary context where you need people to follow orders and follow them quickly, apologizing in public may not be conducive to that.

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In my experience, good leaders apologize when they make a mistake. If the mistake was public, they apologize publicly. If the mistake was private (did not happen in front of others or in a situation where others would be aware of it), they may apologize privately.

In a structure where there is a required obedience such as the military, there is still the need for an apology but it may not be as overt. Sometimes, just changing the decision is all the apology you are going to get in operational circumstances. However, the good military officers I worked with did acknowledge mistakes and apologize when needed and especially when it wasn't crunch time. After all who wants to follow a leader that won't take input ever from subordinates even when he is wrong? Senior enlisted people are generally well trained in how to correct an officer when he is wrong as well without disrupting the chain of command. So the corrections happen subtly and so do the apologies, but everyone knows what really happened.

One Naval Officer I had the misfortune to work with ended his military career because he was unwilling to hear any objections to what he wanted or admit to a mistake. He told the enlisted people to turn the wrong way and ran the ship aground. Because he was not the kind of person that you could ever question, his guys did what they were told even though they knew it was the wrong thing and would cost him his career. Knowing what a jerk he was when I worked with him (mercifully I was a civilian employee and could toss him out of my office when he got obnoxious), I have no doubt they are still laughing about how they got him back by explicitly obeying a stupid order.

  • I could not handle that, being given an order that I know for a fact is wrong and having to follow it explicitly, what would have happened if someone was hurt running aground? Or what if it was an order in a more dangerous situation? Would the crew be punished for disobeying if they knew it was a mistake that had no justification whatsoever? – kleineg Mar 6 '17 at 21:57
  • Indeed in the military, they could have been punished (possibly even severely) for disobeying. Good officers don't do that when they are saved from a massive mistake, bad officers do. Authoritarian organizations are prone to just this problem. If people are afraid to speak up, then they will let you fail spectacularly rather than prevent. This is why, in my opinion, it is even more important for military leaders to apologize and make it crystal clear that they want someone to speak up if things are going off the rails. – HLGEM Mar 6 '17 at 23:14
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Although I don't think it would be inappropriate, but there are some audiences, coworkers or clients who may view this as a sign of weakness in a leader. This just falls under it depends.

There are leaders in some fields that are taught to always act like you are right. The medical profession is notorious for this. They are trained to be exact and highly confident. Recently, there have been processes and procedures in place designed to limit errors. Commercial airline pilots were trained to be the ultimate authority, but when they made too many errors, changes were made to get more input from other flight staff.

There will always be strict authoritarians who will protect their ego at all cost and not admit mistakes. Fortunately, there seems to be trends where this needs to be eliminated. In some corporate cultures it probably won't go away completely, so they'll always see it as inappropriate.

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If I may adapt Geoffrey James, The Tao of Programming:

A master was explaining the nature of Tao to a novice. "The Tao is in all literature, no matter how small or insignificant."

The novice said, "Is the Tao in the children's I Can Read book?"

"It is," came the reply.

The novice asked, "Is the Tao even in the advertising copy for USA Today?"

The master said, "The Tao is even in the advertising copy for USA Today."

The novice then asked, "And is the Tao in the Left Behind series by Jerry Jenkins and Tim Lahaye*?"

The master coughed, and shifted his position slightly. "The lesson is over for today."

* I know one of the editors for the series.

The humor element in the joke is because the master has painted himself into a corner. The joke puts him in a much more embarrassing situation than had he said, "The Tao is in most literature, no matter how small or insignificant."

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    While an interesting anecdote, it's not clear to me how this answers the poster's question. – Thunderforge Mar 6 '17 at 20:59
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    It illustrates, by example, what is wrong with an authority figure being unable to admit to being wrong. In other words it does not say in generalities that it is always, sometimes, or never right for a leader to apologize; but it shows one epigrammatic way a leader can FAIL by being unable to admit being wrong / apologize. – Christos Hayward Mar 6 '17 at 21:09
  • I thought that story illustrates that Master was (as always) right, and that failure belongs to "the DOS for a personal computer" (or the novice for mentioning it). – ChrisW Mar 6 '17 at 21:17

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