How to Apologize at Work: Don’t Justify

Sorry-Apologize-at-WorkMistakes happen all the time. But when we screw up, it’s often hard to apologize at work effectively. It’s even worse when executives have to make public apologies for corporate mistakes.

There’s a great article about this by Ron Ashkenas on the Harvard Business Review site January, 2015, “When a Public Mistake Requires an Old-Fashioned Apology.”

In my previous post, I mentioned that most of us don’t craft an effective apology because we’re so concerned with explaining ourselves. We justify.

The thing is, when you screw up, people don’t want to hear about you. In order for them to forgive you, they want to know you recognize how you offended them. Your rationalizations for offending them aren’t going to endear you.

Make your apology about them and how they must be feeling. If you’re not sure what that is, ask. Focus on how they have been affected by your mistake or your words. Ask what they need from you.

You should take all ambiguity out of the situation. Don’t assume you know how they feel. Inquire, and listen to their answers.

Acknowledge Their Feelings and Values

The people you’ve offended need you to acknowledge their perspective. Don’t argue it. Let them know you hear them by affirming and encouraging them to talk about what is important to them.

When you listen to them talk about their feelings, you are opening the door to healing the damage done.

Powerful people often get this wrong. They’re afraid that admitting wrong-doing will diminish their executive presence when the opposite is more true.

The question is how to recover from one of these moments. A written and public apology is a good first step, but it’s not enough. Often meeting with individuals is required.

The real key to moving forward is to accept that you’re not perfect, and that future mistakes are probably inevitable. Without this mindset, people can convince themselves that they were actually “misunderstood” or there was poor communication.

In my work in organizations, I’ve seen people excuse themselves this way for really bad behavior. It’s a recipe for future disasters. Better to learn how to apologize at work well.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your experiences. You can contact me here and on LinkedIn.

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