How to Apologize

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.

Most importantly, a good apology is not about you. Even though you might feel less guilty after apologizing, an effective apology is for the benefit of the other person. It has to be all about them.

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?

 

How to cope when everything goes wrong

You sleep through your alarm the day of a big client meeting and then get stuck in traffic. You’re late, there’s absolutely no way to change it, and you can feel the tension as you walk in the room. As awful as all of that is, you’re desperately hoping no one notices your shirt is missing a button and your socks don’t match.

Just as you hit print on a report due shortly, the computer freezes. The clock is ticking and you can’t even get the mouse to move on the screen let alone get this document to the printer. And did you save that brilliant conclusion paragraph, or are you going to lose it all and have to start over?

Out of the blue you get a frantic text from a colleague and realize you’ve missed a crucial conference call. Somehow accepting the invite by email didn’t show up in your calendar.

You’re waiting for a direct report to deliver some numbers to you when you get a call that she’s been hit with a terrible flu. Now what?!

Can’t you just feel your shoulders tense, your stomach sicken, and pressure build in your head?

Let’s face it: Some days, one thing can be enough to knock your day sideways. Add a few horrible mistakes, a reprimand from a superior, or some spectacular typo into the mix and you can be left feeling like nothing is going your way.

Accept the reality

It happens. Sometimes the unexpected throws a wrench into the best-laid plans and other times, despite our best efforts, we miss the mark or make a mistake. What on an ordinary day might be a hassle can be intensely more challenging if we’re faced with a series of stressors.

As upsetting as it is, these are times we have to accept the bad and decide what to do about it. Whether we handle setbacks with temper and a defeatist attitude or grace and determination is up to us.

That’s not to say you’re not going to feel frustrated, angry, upset, or despairing. We’re human and we feel emotions. It’s how we cope when things go wrong that is key.

Prevailing wisdom today among psychologists is that there are two choices for how we cope:

In problem-focused coping, you look for solutions. The situation can be fixed, but you have to figure out how to make it better. So if your computer freezes and you can’t print, you can either troubleshoot on your own or call the IT guy for help. If the person you’re relying on for information has gone home sick you might find out if she can email you the file to finish up or perhaps reassign the work to another team member and adjust the deadline.

In emotion-focused coping, you realize and accept the situation is futile. The only thing you can do is try to find a way to feel better about it. For example, if you sleep in and then get stuck in traffic then you know you’re not going to make that morning meeting on time. Or if you relied on technology to put the conference call in your calendar but didn’t double-check, it’s too late now and so the question is how you react to it. Are you able to take a deep breath and make a quick apology before getting to work?

The trick is, for either coping response to work you need to be able to work through your state of alarm to determine how to best respond. When we’re upset, the alarm system is activated and we feel anxious, ill, and overwhelmed. Physically, we could be experiencing things like rapid pulse, a tightening of the chest, upset stomach, perspiration, and fighting back tears. In those situations we sometimes try to fix the situation with problem-focused coping, when all we can do is accept.  Or, we fall into emotion-focused coping when, in fact, there might be other solutions we could find.

De-activating the alarm system

To cope, you have to regulate all these emotions because you can’t respond appropriately when you’re in full-blown panic mode.

You do this by recognizing how you feel: I’m furious, shocked, panicked, or worried. Whatever those feelings are, awareness allows us to manage them so naming them is important.

Once you label a feeling, you can consider the source. So, for example: I’m freaking out right now because I can’t believe my alarm didn’t go off and now I’ve let my team down.

As you move from the emotional response to a rational assessment of the situation, you can actively practice emotional regulation. Taking a deep breath counters that “fight or flight” response by getting enough oxygen to your brain. Consciously slowing your breathing tells your brain and your body to calm down.

When you’re calm, you can think logically and choose whether problem-focused or emotion-focused coping is the right response.

Communicate

When things go wrong our instinct can be to duck and cover. But once you have a clear idea of the problem and which coping strategy you’re going to use, it’s time to communicate with anyone who might be affected by the situation.

It’s always a good idea to get out in front of the problem. So if we use the example of being late for a big meeting, as soon as you realize it’s impossible for you to make it on time, make some calls (pull over if you’re driving and you don’t have hands-free calling – no need to compound your bad day with a ticket, or worse, an accident!).

Not only is it common courtesy to let someone know you’re running late, it prepares them and might help you relax. Instead of walking into a roomful of people who are annoyed at being kept waiting, you’ve tipped them off. They might still be annoyed, but you’ve owned the situation and given them the chance to grab a cup of coffee or catch up on emails. 

Open communication demonstrates honesty and accountability. I think most of us would rather have some idea that something has gone awry for a team member than discover it later. Involving the appropriate people in the moment gives everyone an opportunity to mitigate the fallout.

Don’t blame

Try not to find someone to blame for what’s gone wrong. Even if someone else played a role in what happened, it’s not helpful to start pointing fingers. It can appear petty and it certainly won’t make people want to work with you if they fear they’ll be blamed for mistakes.

If you’re tempted to find a scapegoat, take time to reflect, get your emotions under control, and consider things rationally. Do you often blame others for your mistakes? Should you take responsibility? What lessons can you learn from this?

Keep your focus on solving the problem instead of blaming anyone (including yourself!). What matters is dealing with what went wrong. When you do this you’ll rise above the challenging situation and demonstrate resilience, which is motivating and much better for morale on your team than playing the blame game.

Keep moving forward

Look at problems as learning opportunities. Everyone makes mistakes — the goal is to avoid making the same ones again!

It’s normal to feel discouraged. Those of us who are perfectionists may struggle disproportionately with small errors, let alone significant failures. Being able to accept that you can’t control everything is hard, but necessary at times.

Try to keep your inner voice a constructive critic; examine the situation and figure out where you could do better next time or how you can salvage the situation if possible.

It’s not easy to stay positive, but your attitude in adversity could do you credit in your career in the long run. Do your best to own your mistake and work through it with as much positivity as you can muster.

Each time you navigate through a difficult situation or setback, you’re building resilience. Reach out to mentors or family and friends for the support you require to stay strong at work. The toughest business leaders don’t usually start out that way because it takes time – and support.

Everything is temporary

Though it feels awful in the midst of turmoil, remind yourself that this, too, shall pass.

One horrible day, week, or situation does not define your career. Focus on the bigger picture and using what you’ve learned from this setback to achieve your goals.

Just like Olympic athletes have to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after a fall, you need to regroup and keep going.

A supportive team is ideal, of course. Always strive to encourage, support, and lift the spirits of your team members and when times are tough for you ideally you’ll encounter support and positivity as well.

It can be helpful to have a plan to help cope with the stress of a workplace challenge, like heading to the gym, taking a yoga class, talking with friends, or volunteering somewhere. Whatever helps you stay calm and makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something will help you keep any setbacks in perspective.

Tough times are inevitable, but they won’t last – especially if you have the right attitude.

This week’s Coach’s Questions are:

When have things gone really wrong for you at work? After reading this blog, how would you assess how you responded in the past to challenges? What might you do differently?