September 25th, 2020

Apologizing is how we humans repair relationships and restore trust when we do something that harms others in some way. The outcome of a sincere, well-made apology is the restoration of trust and everything trust makes possible: good working relationships, innovation, collaboration, engagement, accountability, performance, and good results.

A poor apology, on the other hand, won’t make things any better, could make them worse, and might even destroy the relationship altogether. Unfortunately, when we don’t take time to think about it we can make weak, insincere or flippant apologies. “My bad.” “Sorry it upset you.” “I’m sorry, but I didn’t think it would be such a problem.”

So, in case you ever mess up and want to clean it up well…

Three Elements of an Effective Apology

What does someone who has suffered harm need in order to be willing to forgive and risk trusting you again? An acknowledgement of what you did and the harm it caused, an apology for doing it, and a promise to change.

Acknowledgement of what was done and the harm it caused. The person who was harmed wants to know you understand what you did and can see the negative effect it had on them.

Acknowledgement done well: “I didn’t manage my workload well and as a result failed to get my part of the work done by the date I committed to. I realize this will set the project back and make more work for you and the team because you have to reschedule everything. I know pushing back the delivery date makes the team look bad, too, and that it could jeopardize sales if our customers start looking for alternate suppliers.” In this acknowledgement, the person speaks to all of the fallout from what they did and owns responsibility for it. They also address the specific ways it harmed individual team members, the team as a whole, and possibly the company.

Acknowledgement done poorly: “Sorry I didn’t get this done on time. There were a lot of other things I was working on and it just fell between the cracks.” This person does acknowledge not getting the job done “on time” but doesn’t directly own responsibility and doesn’t address the harm it caused at all.

Apology for what was done. It is an expression of sincere regret for what you did (or did not do) that resulted in the harm.

Apology done well: “I am sorry I let you and the team down.” This simple, straightforward apology expresses regret for doing what they did.

Apology done poorly: “I’m sorry this is such a problem for you.” A statement like this minimizes the impact of the person’s own actions and subtly blames the person who was harmed for having a “problem.”

Promise to change so this doesn’t happen again. Perhaps the most important element of a good apology is committing to doing something different to ensure what happened is not repeated.

Promise done well: “In the future I’ll ask for help and delegate what I can when I can see I’m falling behind. I’ll also let you know if my deliverables are in danger of slipping.” This is a simple but actionable promise. Being specific about what she is going to do differently lets others know she has thought about it and has a plan. Of course, the most important thing is to follow through on what has been promised!

Promise done poorly: “I’ll do what I can, but the fact is I’ve got a lot on my plate.” Nothing is promised. It is clear this person hasn’t thought at all about what he might do differently and is excusing himself in in advance if he does the same thing again in the future.

To err is human. To acknowledge, apologize and promise to make changes when we make mistakes makes it possible to repair the damaged and rebuild trust when we do.

How often and effectively do you and others in your workplace acknowledge, apologize and promise to make changes?

By the way, this applies in all situations, not just at work.