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The art of apologizing

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in Business Etiquette,Workplace Communication

Making a quick, sincere apology to a colleague, boss or direct report may be one of the most important actions you take today. We live in a stressful world filled with conflicting ideas, values and yes…egos! This makes two simple words such as “I’m sorry” important tools in every leader’s toolkit. And, as with most management interventions the key is to apologize and make things right quickly so that trust doesn’t break down and relationships are not damaged. Here are a few tips for owning and executing effective apologies.

First, choose your apology words carefully. Typically we express regret by saying “I’m sorry.” However, being more specific is often called for. Consider Mel Gibson’s apology following his DUI arrest and anti-Semitic tirade: “There is no excuse, nor should there be any tolerance, for anyone who thinks or expresses any kind of anti-Semitic remark. I want to apologize specifically to everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words that I said to a law enforcement officer the night I was arrested on a DUI charge.” In this example, Mr. Gibson not only expresses sincere regret, but he also accepts responsibility by admitting that he was wrong. Likewise, as leaders we would be well advised to verbally and non-verbally express our errors around failures, acts of selfishness, poor choices, or harsh language.

In my experience, the second part of the apology—making restitution— may be the most important part of the “apology equation.” Once we’ve asked for forgiveness, we need to also discuss how we will make our relationship whole or “right.” In other words, what do we need to do to correct the situation and restore any damage that our actions may have incited? This may be in the form of a question: “What can I do to make things right with you again?” Or in the form of a suggestion: “In order to make restitution for the inconvenience I’ve caused you, I would like to offer to complete the report myself and give you time to focus on other projects.”

Remember, accepting ownership of the situation and working to correct the problem is the key to a successful apology. Avoidant behavior, blame or excuses only serve to undermine your authority and position, while a genuine, proactive approach demonstrates integrity and strength of character. Below is an example of how you can prepare for an apology that has meaning and gets results.

  1. Describe the situation ... “During this morning’s leadership team meeting”
  2. Describe the behavior ... “I prejudged your idea and shut down the discussion prematurely”
  3. Make the apology ... “I want to apologize for this and ask that you forgive me”
  4. Describe the impact ... “I was feeling pressured for time, but that was no excuse for my actions”
  5. Offer restitution ... “How can I make this right?”
  6. Agree on a solution and execute ... “Yes, I will formally apologize at our next staff meeting and give you 20 minutes to present your idea fully and without interruption”
  7. Follow-up ... “Nice job on the presentation. I want to check in and make sure we’re on the same page.

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Mickey Parsons is the founder of The Workplace Coach, where he and his colleagues provide coaching services for business leaders, professionals and entrepreneurs.

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