How to Make a Sincere and Effective Apology at the Office

If you’ve ever made a mistake at work and felt the need to apologize for it, you know that sometimes it’s difficult to have it accepted. Depending on what you did, sometimes an “I’m sorry”, no matter how heartfelt, just won’t cut it. Sometimes you have to do more to earn forgiveness. What you need is an effective apology.

Mistakes at work come in all shapes and sizes. A quick, concise apology will usually suffice for little mistakes such as forgetting to turn in a report on time, or running late to a department meeting. Unless, of course, that’s your modus operandi, which means you probably jumped the shark ages ago and need to do some big-time groveling.

Bigger mistakes or things you’ve done to upset someone demand more formal apologies. The key to a good apology is to remember the point of the apology, suggests Guy Winch, Ph.D., for Psychology Today. The main goal of an apology is to ease the offended person’s emotional burden and get their authentic forgiveness. Your feelings are secondary. Your guilt or regret may be eased if your apology is effective.

Most of us break down apologies into three components: (1) a statement of regret for what happened; (2) a clear ‘I’m sorry’ statement; and (3) a request for forgiveness. These ingredients must be delivered with sincerity for an apology to be effective. Unfortunately, we’ve become numb as a society to the site of a politician or a celebrity reading a prepared “apology” written by some PR hack who skips one or two of the steps above. The result is often that the apology causes almost as big of an uproar as the original incident. (Think of Kathy Griffin’s recent apology over her “performance art” with the President’s head)

Here are the ways to craft and deliver an effective apology at work that is more likely to be accepted:

Don’t wait

Negative feelings can fester, so apologize as soon as you become aware of your mistake. However, late is definitely better than not at all. So, if you’ve waited, apologize now … and include words letting the person know that you’re aware your apology is long overdue.

Don’t trivialize 

Some of us have a natural inclination to lighten the mood when faced with disapproval or uncomfortable situations. When you’re making an apology is not the time to be cute.

Explain yourself if you can

Why did this happen? “I didn’t put the deadline on my calendar.” “I didn’t double-check my work.” “I didn’t allow enough time to finish my work.” Show that you understand the “rules” you’ve violated.

Don’t make excuses 

Don’t point fingers, pass the buck and blame someone else if it was your fault. Take responsibility without caveats. “I didn’t plan on having to do 100 other things the boss gave me” is not a good explanation. “I didn’t plan my time well enough” does a better job of owning the mistake.

Show empathy  

Let the other person know that you understand how it’s affected him or her.

Actually say “I’m sorry”

Surprisingly, many apologies don’t include these words. Be sure yours do.

Let the other person talk

Sometimes, the person affected needs to vent. Don’t interrupt.

Offer a solution

How do you plan to fix the mistake or how do you plan to keep it from happening again? Let the offended person know that you’ve given some thought to making things right. Winch suggests that when making an apology at work, emphasis should be placed on the solution (compensation) component of the apology.

Ask for forgiveness

With an apology, you’re asking for forgiveness, but if the other person isn’t ready to give it to you, don’t push it. If you deserve it, you’ll probably eventually get it. And, if not, move on.

When we mess up, we sometimes damage work relationships. Most of the time, you can mend the damage and rebuild trust with an effective apology.  If all else fails … wag your tail.

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