Asana, our project management software company, recently published a blog post called, “How to Say Sorry at Work” that really resonated for us.
We’ve summarized some of their thoughts and added a few of our own based on our work with hundreds of leaders and leadership teams.
Healthy relationships are important for teams to function well. Human nature sometimes gets in the way, which means that sometimes relationships falter. Effective apologies allow for reconciliation and moving forward.
When you should apologize
Usually, you’ll realize when you’ve offended a colleague in some way. Perhaps you said something thoughtless, forgot to give someone credit for work they completed, or maybe you were having a bad day and lashed out.
Disagreements can get out of hand and we’re not always as calm as we’d like to be. Sometimes we intentionally or thoughtlessly make choices that injure someone else’s feelings.
Then there could also be times where you don’t realize you’ve hurt someone’s feelings until they won’t speak to you or let you know they’re angry or hurt – or other colleagues tell you that you went too far or made a mistake.
Not sure whether you’ve offended someone? If you reflect on what has happened and have any feelings of remorse or twinges of guilt, an apology from you is probably warranted. It’s possible you really can’t see how you offended the person, but you know that they are upset and it’s having a negative effect on your team. In that case it’s always worth asking, first.
Essentially, if you have said or done something to cause a colleague grief, frustration, or any other kind of distress, you should apologize. Fractured relationships make work difficult for everyone and without an attempt at repairing them, they can fester and become quite toxic. We don’t have to apologize for a contrary point of view and apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean you’re changing your view – the apology is about how you, in that situation or conversation, made the person feel.
Err on the side of cultivating healthy workplace relationships and reach out to offer an apology (even if the person says not to worry, they’ll know you value their feelings!). Remember that the whole point of an apology is to attempt to make reparation for the pain you’ve caused and to build a stronger relationship.
What is an effective apology?
We’ve certainly seen many examples of quite serious breaches of trust (complete with public relations nightmares and legal consequences!) play out in the media in the last year. Consequently, we’ve also witnessed the importance of a well thought out, sincere, and meaningful apology (and what happens if it’s perceived to have been made with little effort, insincerity, and nothing of substance!).
Whether your transgressions are small or massive, an effective apology will demonstrate that you’re remorseful and acknowledge the impact it’s had on the other person.
How to deliver your apology
The most effective apologies will be:
Sincere – You have to say it when you really mean it or risk coming off as disrespectful (and more offensive!). The apology is about putting the other person’s needs and feelings first, so you also need to ensure that you are not inadvertently trying to make yourself feel better. Nothing sounds more insincere than making yourself the main topic of the apology.
Full of empathy – You need to recognize how the other person feels. If they are feeling angry, sad, hurt, embarrassed, or betrayed, you need to demonstrate that you really understand the emotion they are experiencing.
Taking responsibility – This is when you own what you’ve done. You don’t attempt to explain it away or rationalize it or defend it; you find the courage to be responsible for your actions.
Acknowledging the impact of your actions – A good apology is going to validate how the wronged person feels. It’s important to acknowledge you understand how your actions have caused hurt. Someone who feels their feelings are being acknowledged and legitimized will be more willing to accept you are being sincere.
Offering a way to make reparation – It helps immeasurably to show that you want to make things right. Depending what happened, you can usually offer a way to fix a mistake or at least not repeat it again. Just make sure that if you make a promise, it’s something you can stick to. It’s harder to have an apology accepted for a repeat offense.
Pick your moment to apologize wisely, based on how you think it will be best received by the person you’ve hurt, without waiting too long. It becomes too easy to tell yourself the moment has passed, they’re over it, etcetera, if you wait too long.
Some people are quite private and will appreciate a quiet conversation. If you were aggressive or angry, it may be best delivered on neutral ground where the other person doesn’t feel cornered.
If you are apologizing for something that happened in front of the team, you may want to consider making a more public apology as a way to show everyone that you’re truly sorry and trying to make things right and, of course, to model the behaviour you want in your workplace.
It is uncomfortable to make an apology, but don’t put it off. The sooner you can take responsibility, the more quickly everyone can move forward.
How to Apologize Do’s and Don’ts
The last thing you want to do when you apologize is to make a situation worse. Here are some things to keep in mind:
DO be prepared for the offended person to still be angry. They can accept your apology, but healing from hurt or broken trust takes time. Give the other person room for those emotions.
DON’T try to wiggle out of the discomfort. It can be very awkward to face someone you’ve offended, but this is a time to talk – not text or email. Face-to-face someone can see and hear that you are sincerely remorseful.
DO be prepared to listen. The other person might have a lot more to say about how hurt or upset they feel.
DON’T argue if this happens. Part of taking accountability is hearing the full impact of your actions. The apology may start a dialogue that is uncomfortable for you but important for restoring the work relationship.
DO acknowledge that the situation is awkward and uncomfortable. It’s not easy to apologize and sometimes just saying out loud that it’s really awkward helps to alleviate the tension and get the conversation started.
DON’T make excuses. If there is a reason for something, then provide it as a rationale. For example, saying, “I’m sorry I lost my cool, but you knew that we were understaffed” is an excuse and will not show you are taking accountability. However, saying, “I’m sorry I lost my cool. Even if I was stressed from being understaffed, I need to work on my anger and stress management skills” gives a reason without trying to excuse you from responsibility for your actions.
DO ask for help if you aren’t quite sure how to make things right. For example, “I’m really sorry I missed the deadline. I don’t really understand how to do this and I should have asked for help in the first place. Do you know who could help us?”
DON’T say the words “if” or “but” when you apologize. Saying, “if you” or “but you” is putting the blame on the other person. Remember that the apology is about you taking responsibility and communicating regret for your actions. There is no room for blame in an effective apology.
Try to approach apologizing as a way to show that you’re professional and accountable for your behaviour in the workplace. Being able to offer an effective apology is the first step to repairing a relationship and a valuable skill for every member of a team.
Admitting your weakness or fault shows a strength of character and emotional intelligence. Taking responsibility and doing your best to make reparation shows you are a person of integrity who can put aside your ego for the good of the team.
The Coach’s Questions
What do you find most difficult about apologizing? Can you think of a time you’ve been wronged and someone has apologized effectively? What made the biggest difference? What strategies can you use the next time you need to apologize?