Team Trust: Why its hard for team members to willingly apologize to one another

Acknowledging one’s weaknesses, willingly apologizing, and being genuine with one another are all behavioral examples of team trust – vulnerability-based trust*.  In part-one, I offered reasons why it’s difficult for team members to acknowledge their weakness, and what leaders can do to promote greater trust. Here, I’d like to share why team members struggle with apologizing to one another – another key trust-building behavior that is absent often within teams. Here are a few reasons why . . .

  1. Team members don’t admit to mistakes, so there’s no opportunity to apologize. If team members never admit to mistakes or having done or said something inappropriate, then, of course, there’s no opportunity to apologize. People may not admit to a mistake out of lack of trust or perhaps a fear of appearing incompetent. Or they may justify their behavior by telling themselves it’s not their fault. Whatever the reason, there’s great value to a team in apologizing when appropriate. So, the team, and the team leader, should strive to create an environment where it’s okay to admit to mistakes and to apologize. Team leaders should model that getting issues out in the open sooner rather than later can benefit the team by allowing them to remedy problems before things get out of control.
  2. Team members think apologizing shows weakness. Many people are reluctant to apologize because they fear it will make them look weak. Their ego or a sense of self-protection or fear of others’ judgment may prevent them from apologizing. Even if they know they’re in the wrong, they may worry that apologizing will make them appear incompetent. They may believe that others will be angry with them or won’t trust them going forward. To try to address this issue, the team and the team leader, should work toward creating a climate and norm where it’s safe to admit to mistakes and to apologize. Team members should graciously accept one another’s apologies, and the whole team should try to learn from what occurred and apply it to future situations. Also, and again, stressing that getting issues out in the open sooner will benefit the team by preventing emotional issues from getting in the way of the team’s work.
  3. Team members lack social awareness. Sometimes team members may not apologize because they genuinely don’t understand that they’ve done something to cause offense. They might not have the interpersonal awareness to understand how their words and actions affect others, so they don’t see anything to apologize for. To address this issue, team members may need some education and practice to build both self-awareness—a clearer recognition of what they’re feeling, saying, and doing—and awareness of others—what others feel and how their own words and actions may be perceived by and impact the rest of the team.

Whether or not team members are willing to apologize (and accept others’ apologies) will likely impact how frequently a team is willing to openly voice opinions. They may be less likely to point out the achievements of others if those people never admit to or apologize for mistakes. On the contrary, if members have the courage to apologize for their mistakes, they’re more likely to trust one another to take responsibility for the team’s performance.


Part 1: Team Trust—why it’s hard for team members to be vulnerable with one another

Part 2: Team Trust—why it’s hard for team members to willingly apologize to one another

Part 3: Team Trust—why it’s hard for team members to be open and genuine with one another


*Based on Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” and “The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team” a trademark of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Tom Sullivan of ProGrowth Associates is an Accredited Facilitator and Authorized Partner of The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team.

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