Many of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work. If we make a mistake and fail to apologize for it, there can be a domino effect on team dynamics and business success. This article covers the value of work apologies, how to apologize at work, and some special considerations for saying a professional “I’m sorry.”
Why apologize at work
People tend to think poorly of someone who refuses to apologize or admit fault. Failing to apologize for error or causing hurt or damage can have long-term negative effects. By contrast, admitting to mistakes in a timely and appropriate manner can help demonstrate respect for colleagues or the people you supervise. This supports morale and employee engagement.
By apologizing, you acknowledge your actions and take responsibility for how they are impacting others. This helps show coworkers that you are a team player who is not only thinking of yourself. Failing to apologize can give people incorrect impressions about you, which can even end up leading to career limitations.
Apologies at work can also help lower stress — both for you and for those around you. Holding on to negative feelings can undermine productivity and collaboration. An unaddressed slight or failing could lead to people tiptoeing around one another, leaving people out of meetings or important decisions, or blowing other small things into bigger office dramas. The apology opens the door again to continued open communication.
How to apologize at work
There are many ways to offer work apologies. In doing so, these strategies could help you have more positive impact.
1. Be aware of timing
The longer you let a hurt or mistake linger the more damage it could cause. Especially after a minor misstep, an immediate “I’m sorry” could be all that’s needed. At the same time, you may want to take longer to apologize for something more major. You may need to give yourself and others room to process the situation before you are able to offer a thoughtful, authentic apology.
2. Use specifics
A blanket statement of apology will not have the same resonance as a specific statement in which you take responsibility. Compare “I hate that I interrupted you” with “I am sorry that I spoke over you in the meeting when you were sharing your ideas.”
Offering specifics of how you plan to avoid doing the same thing again in the future can also help give the apology some more weight. You might also ask the individual you are apologizing to for suggestions of how you can remedy the situation.
3. Avoid conditions
In a genuine apology, you will avoid using words like “if” or “but.” For instance, “I’m sorry if I offended you.” This questions the offense. Also avoid saying “I’m sorry, but…” This doesn’t take ownership of the issue. Instead, you’re setting yourself up to share the blame or make an excuse.
Validating how the other person feels is a better way to communicate sincerity and acknowledge how your actions affected others.
4. Consider your method
In some cases, an emailed apology will work fine, or even a Slack or Teams message on a private channel. Other times, you’ll need to apologize face-to-face. This might be something you schedule time to do so that you’re not sandbagging the other individuals involved. In some cases, it may even be a good idea to have another colleague, a manager, or someone from Human Resources involved in your apology.
5. Act on your apology
Don’t just say you’re sorry and go ahead and continue doing what you were doing before. Research has found that an imagined apology can sometimes have more positive effect than an actual apology. That’s because concrete action is needed to make that apology stick. If you don’t live up to your word, your peers could begin to question your authenticity overall.
Special considerations for apologies at work
Apologies can feel awkward. Various individuals will avoid them for different reasons. For example, a Georgetown University researcher has found that men often regard apologies negatively. They focus on the “status implications” and feel that apologies diminish the speaker.
At the same time, you don’t want to apologize for every little thing that goes wrong. If you make a big deal of minor transgressions, your coworkers could view this as insecurity on your part.
As a manager, apologizing for delegating could also backfire. It’s part of your job, after all. Instead, explain what you need done and how it must be handled, and provide a timeline for getting the work completed. Then, you can ask what resources the person needs to get started and if they have any questions. You might close by thanking them for their support. But, the words “I’m sorry” have not left your lips.
If you had nothing to do with the problem, there is no reason to apologize. Don’t apologize on someone else’s behalf, either. As a manager, if someone comes to you with an issue with another employee, it’s not your place to apologize. You can validate the person’s feelings. And you might work with the two employees involved to encourage them to communicate directly. But, save your own apologies for things you can own 100%.
Nevertheless, you don’t want to be a manager who never apologizes. Admitting a mistake to an employee can demonstrate leadership. You’re taking the opportunity to improve yourself while showing that employee that you care about their feelings. This can help foster a positive company culture.
Moving forward often starts with an apology
Mistakes and miscommunications are, regrettably, inevitable. Professional apologies can feel uncomfortable, but that discomfort can mean you’re growing. With these insights into how to apologize at work, you can take responsibility and repair the damage when you need to make amends.
Apologies aren’t only important internally. Take a moment also to read our article on how and when to apologize to customers.