Apologies in the Workplace

We all make mistakes in the workplace. While our first instinct might be to brush those mistakes aside in order to avoid looking incompetent, it’s best to own up and admit our wrongdoings. The best employees recognise when it’s time to apologise, as do good managers. In fact, employees tend to lose trust, respect, and confidence in a manager who covers their own tracks rather than admitting they’re wrong. Research confirms that CEOs and managers who own up to their mistakes tend to have better reputations and perform better. Though apologies can make us feel vulnerable, they’re an important part of earning the respect of our colleagues. When admitting that we’re wrong, it’s important to get it right - that’s why we’d like to share some tips for making apologies in the workplace.

As soon as you realise your mistake, take a deep breath and think of possible solutions. If you can address your mistake in that moment, go ahead and implement that short-term solution. If your mistake isn’t retractable, devise a few solutions to the problem before you start forming your apology. Come up with a few options and identify the one you think is best - have the others as back-ups. Then, approach the person in private, speak slowly, make eye contact, and show that you understand the seriousness of the occasion through your tone and body language.

Now, for the apology itself. Lauren M. Bloom, author of Art of the Apology: How, When, and Why to Give and Accept Apologies has devised a six-step process for saying you’re sorry:

  1. Be sincere. You have to genuinely regret what you did, and make the other person believe it. While humour can normally be used to smooth over tense situations, you want to avoid making jokes during an apology.

  2. Briefly explain what you believe you did wrong. You may be tempted to provide a bunch of mitigating information, but the less time you spend hemming and hawing and the more quickly you fix the mistake, the more you will be seen as someone who does well under pressure and cares about the success of the company.

  3. Suggest a solution for the short term, and for the next time this situation comes along (if it ever does).

  4. Let the person vent if they need to. Remember that this apology is about them, not you. Don’t try to argue with them, and avoid using phrases such as “I didn’t mean to…” “I was trying to…” or “I didn’t realise…”. Show empathy and show the person you understand the consequences of your actions.

  5. Thank the person for giving you a chance to do better in the future. Explain what you’ve learned and communicate how you’ll do better in the future.

  6. Don’t make the same mistake again.

Your apology might look a little different if you’re addressing a team rather than a single person. In group settings, people prefer an acknowledgement of violated rules and norms to empathy. Admit you broke the code of behaviour or made a mistake, and that you let the team down. It’s also important to remember that the apology should fit the scale of the mistake. If you made a minor glitch, there’s no need to go to your manager in tears; but if your mistake is more serious, don’t just shrug it off. And, even in the most casual of workplaces, never apologise too casually to someone who outranks you. This is a time when even the loosest of hierarchies snap back into place. Finally, make sure you’re truly owning up to your wrongdoing. Research shows that using the word “but” in your apology can work to your disadvantage, since it suggests you’re passing the buck rather than finding a solution.

When all is said and done, remember to forgive yourself. Mistakes are bound to happen, and it’s how we react to them that people tend to remember.