4 steps to the perfect work apology
1. Acknowledge what happened.
Acknowledging the event serves two purposes: It validates your team’s ideas about what occurred, and it defines the mess-up, so people know what you’re apologizing for. This is a simple first step, but it’s an important one to take.
Part of apologizing involves communicating empathy and assuring the other party that you understand how your behavior affects others. Mentioning the event sets you up for an empathetic apology.
“Own it, and don’t try to hide it or blame anyone else,” said Vicki Salemi, career expert with Monster. “It’s always best to be succinct; don’t ramble. ‘This is what happened, I’m responsible, this is what I’m going to do to fix it, and this is what I learned.’”
2. Admit your mistake, but don’t focus on your initial intentions.
After acknowledging the event, you need to own your mistake. This is the most important part of the apology. Often, people make excuses, blame others, or don’t appropriately take responsibility. Apologizing can be awkward, but if you take responsibility, your peers and manager may respect you more in the long run. A good apology exposes character, so treat the action as just that: an exercise in good character.
“Own up to your part in whatever happened,” said Tara Vossenkemper, founder of The Counseling Hub. “When you have an otherwise good relationship with your boss, employee, or co-worker, taking ownership of your role only serves to strengthen that relationship and build trust between the two of you.”
Vossenkemper said that a good apology doesn’t involve extensive explanations about why the event happened. Moving into this territory can bog down your apology – you don’t want to focus on why something happened and its lead-up. Instead, own your mistake and move on to how you can improve the situation.
Focusing on an explanation can also sound defensive. You may feel like you want to say your piece, and sometimes it’s justified, but often the person you’re apologizing to won’t care about your original intentions. The mistake happened, and it’s time to figure out how to remedy it.
“Just say you’re sorry for the specific thing you did and leave it at that,” Vossenkemper said. “The only thing the explanation does is dig a metaphorical hole and make your listener feel defensive, as though you’re trying to rationalize or excuse your behavior.”
Key takeaway: There’s no need to explain why you made a mistake. State what the mistake was, and move on to the next steps in your apology.
3. Concentrate on what you learned.
The best thing you can do during an apology is talk about what lesson the situation has taught you or your team. Mistakes happen in the business world; Salemi points out that some company cultures have a stress-free work environment that actually encourages mistakes because they’re growth opportunities. By prioritizing what you learned from the mistake, you can shift the discussion toward something positive.
“Bosses and colleagues want to know that we won’t make the same mistake again,” said Bob Graham, co-founder and CEO of Serious Soft Skills. “Show them you learned the lesson by explaining, in a sentence or two, what lesson you learned.”
Graham said managers and colleagues want to see their peers evolve and learn. By focusing on the lesson in your apology, you can communicate that you’re an intelligent, self-aware employee who can handle responsibility and problems with grace.
4. Suggest a plan or solution.
After talking about the lesson you learned, suggest a plan, talk through a solution, or mention how you can help rectify the situation. This is the second stage to shifting the discussion away from the mistake and toward a positive outcome. By communicating your willingness to help, you back up the lesson you learned from the mistake with meaningful action.
If you follow these steps, you’ll put yourself in the best position possible after a big mistake in the workplace. Every situation is different, but if you follow this plan, your co-workers, manager or employees will eventually come around.
What to avoid when apologizing at work
Apologizing when necessary is important, but apologizing in the wrong way – or at the wrong time – can be worse than staying silent. Here are some key things to avoid in your workplace apologies:
Apologizing too much
In general, it’s not a smart strategy to apologize for every little thing you do wrong. While appropriate in some instances, workplace apologies should occur after big mistakes or when your whole team or a group of co-workers witnesses a mess-up. Apologizing 24/7 can create the wrong impression in the workplace, according to Salemi.
Taking the blame for things that aren’t your responsibility
Instead of apologizing to whoever is asking for something to be rectified, say that you’re looking into it with the appropriate people. Don’t name anyone – you don’t want to throw your teammates under the bus – but do lay out an action plan without apologizing.
Continuing to make apologies that go unrecognized (or hearing too few apologies from others)
While apologies can be awkward, they also serve as a window into your company’s culture. If you find yourself issuing an appropriate apology that is still not well received, it can be a workplace confidence killer. If that happens, it may be time to analyze your current workplace and decide if it’s a good fit for you. This is also true when managers and co-workers apologize (or fail to apologize).
Tip: If your apologies fall on deaf ears – or if you don’t hear apologies from others when you should – you might not be the problem. Your current workplace or company culture might be the issue.
Viewing constructive criticism as a reprimand
Team members at all levels can, and should, receive constructive criticism from their peers. Research has found that constructive criticism delivered after a task is completed has a substantial impact on future performance. One way to sap that future impact, though, is to take constructive criticism as a reprimand.
When someone advises you on how to do something differently, they’re not doing so out of disdain or ill will. If anything, they want you to improve and are taking active steps to help you do so. That’s why you shouldn’t say “I’m sorry” when you receive constructive criticism. Instead, say “thank you,” and then act on the advice you’ve received.
Not taking corrective action
If something you did merits an apology, it’s one thing to say you’re sorry. It’s another to put actions to your words. So don’t just apologize– put forth a plan, as discussed above, and then act on it. This way, your apology doesn’t ring hollow, and you can rebuild any trust lost in whatever fallout you’re piecing back together.
Example apology when you’ve made a mistake you can’t fix yourself
You’re human, so you screwed up on something complex (think: green-lighting something you didn’t actually have the authority to OK). You realize that you don’t have the skills, resources, or authority to fix it on your own, and the only option you have is to admit this to your supervisor or someone else and ask them to help you out. This apology should be timely (since you need help fixing the error—fast). Try something like:
I made a mistake on the BumbleB account. I thought I was taking initiative, but I can see now that I should have run my actions by you first. I’m so sorry and it won’t happen again. However, in order to fix it, I’ll need your help. When’s the best time for us to discuss?
Example apology when you’ve promised something impossible to a client
You’re always striving to exceed your clients’ expectations. You go above and beyond, promising to give them everything their hearts desire. This works well—until you realize that something you guaranteed them simply cannot be done.
If you’re part of a team—even if you’ve been running lead—share your mistake with your colleagues or your manager. They may not be able to help you, but at the very least, they should know what’s going on. When you’re apologizing to your client or customer, make sure you come prepared with a solution.
Unfortunately, I’m unable to provide you with a dedicated account manager with the package you’re looking at. I’m sorry for my oversight. I said yes out of enthusiasm and a desire to give you exactly what you wanted, but I should have checked with our account management team before saying it could be done. Instead, I can set you up with a free one-time training session for our software for anyone who will be using it and a dedicated account manager for the first two months of your subscription to make sure you’re up and running.