The Wrong Way to Apologize at Work

We take it for granted, but there’s a wrong way to apologize. Who hasn’t said something in the heat of the moment that they regret? Everyone makes mistakes. We make insensitive statements, we speak before we think, and we let our emotions get the best of us. Then, we bungle our apology and make things worse!

No workplace is perfect. Managers berate subordinates in meetings. Colleagues make snide remarks about each other. Even worse, people send emails, texts, or tweets without giving sufficient consideration to how the messages will be received. This makes our insensitivities more public and all the more egregious.

Even seasoned executives aren’t immune from foot-in-mouth disease. Tony Hayward, the former CEO of British Petroleum, famously complained that he “wanted his life back” in the midst of the 2010 oil spill. (He later apologized to the families of the workers who had died in the tragedy, as well as the thousands of people whose lives were totally disrupted.)

Former Harvard President and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had to apologize in 2005 for his contention that “innate differences” between men and women accounted for the under-representation of women in the sciences. Senior advertising executive Justine Sacco was fired for posting an insensitive and racist tweet about AIDS in Africa. And more recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella apologized for suggesting that women should not speak up about pay inequities.

It’s time for an apology. But apologies can be tricky and can backfire. Without some forethought, an apology — public or private — is no guarantee you’ll redeem yourself. Sometimes, people aren’t ready to forgive.

More often than not, however, your apology fails because you apologize the wrong way. Most people approach it with some version of:

  • “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to —-, I was only trying to —-.”
  • “I wasn’t implying that you —-, I only wanted to express my —-.”
  • “I had a good reason for saying —-, please understand where I’m coming from.”

In other words, we make the apology all about ourselves. We justify, explain, and coat it with our own polish.

Think about the last time you had to apologize to someone. Didn’t you try to explain yourself? It’s natural, of course. How much of your apology focused on the other person and their feelings?

In my work, I see this happening a lot. I’ve done it, we all have. Maybe it’s time to work on improving the way we craft an apology. What do you think? I’d love to hear your experiences. You can contact me here and on LinkedIn.


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