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VOICES ❘ Peer to Peer

When should a project manager apologize?

By Mathieu Alia and Mark Henderson

Mark Henderson: I‘m wary of any rule containing the word “never.” I like having the necessary flexibility to react to situations as they arise.

Mathieu Alia: Apologizing is accusing yourself, so you might think twice before apologizing for things you are not directly responsible for.

It's a better rule when you think of it as preventive: “Never have to apologize.” On your day-to-day tasks, you should think, “Am I doing something on my own that has an impact on scope, budget or schedule?” This helps avoid having the team or sponsor ask for an apology from the project manager.

When should a project professional not apologize?

Mr. Henderson: If the project professional is not responsible, an apology is merely hollow. If you accept responsibility for the errors of others, this can lower the morale of a team.

Mr. Alia: However, if it's related to project management activities, an apology lets the team members know you are human, and so are they, and mistakes are allowed for everyone. This gives team members the spirit of initiative without fear of repercussions from mistakes.


How does refusing to apologize affect project success?

Mr. Alia: If the project manager has made a mistake, not apologizing may make people think:

  • ■ You are not courageous enough to admit your mistakes.
  • ■ You are not able to see your mistakes, which is even worse.
  • ■ You are not able to communicate confidently with your team on good and bad subjects. That may make the team reluctant to tell you their own mistakes and problems in the future.

Mr. Henderson: I can imagine a situation in which a project manager who refused to accept responsibility would generate a negative team culture that, in turn, could have a negative impact upon project delivery and success.

Mr. Alia: However, if you communicate properly on why you set things up the way you do; consider all inputs to sponsors, stakeholders and team members; and let them discuss things openly, there needn't be any reason to apologize if something goes wrong. Everyone was involved in the project organization, so all can take responsibility.

Mr. Henderson: Part of acknowledging mistakes and misjudgments is identifying where things went wrong to ensure that each mistake happens only once. The experience can be applied in all subsequent projects—and therefore improve the chance of success.

Can a project manager apologize too much?

Mr. Henderson: Yes, some people use an easy and insincere apology as a tactic to avoid conflict.

Mr. Alia: A project manager may apologize for things not related to his or her responsibility in certain circumstances. Although that person may be competent, over-apologizing makes people think he or she is not good enough as a project manager.

How do apologies affect a project manager's accountability?

Mr. Henderson: Apologies are about recognizing strengths and weaknesses—and their consequences. That is the essence of accountability.

Mr. Alia: My point of view is that project managers are accountable only when they have made mistakes that impact the project and teams. Apologizing for things they are not accountable for may hurt project managers because they are not focusing on possible options of resolution. PM



Mark Henderson is a project manager and consultant for the EU-China Trade Project, a project organized between the European Commission and the Chinese government, in Beijing, China.


Mathieu Alia is a project manager and business analyst consultant currently working on behalf of the banking group CACEIS in Paris, France.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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