Common Mistakes and Best Practices for Work-related Apologies
Some people apologize too much. Others don’t apologize enough. As a young professional, it is important to strive for a balance that takes you as far as possible from those two undesirable extremes.
As attorneys, we need to project an aura of self-confidence and reliability. Starting every other sentence with “I’m sorry,” is surely not the way to go. But failing to acknowledge our own mistakes can also be counter-productive.
One of the most dreaded scenarios involves the infamous fake apology. Apologizing is not easy, as a rule, but when the apology doesn’t sound genuine, it can trigger all sorts of unwanted consequences.
For leadership guru Stacey Hanke, “Too many leaders give superficial apologies loaded with excuses and blame. Apologizing for the sake of apologizing is an ingenuine insult to those wronged. If you want to be taken seriously, it’s important to know why an apology is necessary and to deliver it in a way that’s heartfelt and honest.”
Common Faux-Apology Mistakes
Making Excuses and Blame Shifting
The object of an apology is to own the mistake. The person who has been somehow wronged by your mistake doesn’t want to hear, “I’m sorry, but it was actually not my fault.” If you are in a leadership position, sometimes you have to take responsibility for your subordinates’ mistakes. Your client, colleague, or whoever you may be apologizing to, just wants to hear that you are genuinely sorry and you are committed to preventing similar mistakes in the future.
Good Message, Bad Choice of Words
When you apologize, you want to make sure trust is still part of that relationship. You must prepare by considering how your words may be interpreted within the situation’s context. A poor choice of words can result in increased anger and frustration; the opposite of what you are trying to achieve.
Referring to the Mistake Only Vaguely
If you own up to your mistake, you must be specific. Do not beat around the bush. Say, “This should have been done, but wasn’t. This is why it happened. This is how I plan to prevent such mistakes from now on.” Simple, straightforward.
Apologizing by Email or Phone When Face-to-Face Is Doable
Looking someone in the eye and apologizing takes more courage than sending an impersonal email. The written word allows for more elaboration, but it also leaves more room for personal interpretation. When you are in the same room with someone, you can observe reactions and respond to them. It may be difficult, but if you are assertive and come prepared, the results will be much more satisfactory after an in-person apology.
Waiting Too Long to Apologize
Of course, later is better than never. But if you have numerous opportunities, and consistently miss them, by the time you apologize, the damage may have already been done, and the effect of your words might be insignificant.
What We Can Learn from Famous Apologies
Last April, CNN reported, “After a year in the spotlight, Michael Avenatti claims ‘I've been humbled.’” Stormy Daniels’ attorney was then facing numerous criminal charges. Like many before him, he refrained from taking responsibility for his (alleged) mistakes. There are many potential negative consequences to acknowledging mistakes, but when the evidence leaves little room for doubt, avoiding an apology doesn’t make the guilty look any more innocent.
When Joe Biden “apologized” to Anita Hill, the media referred to his statement as a “non-apology.” Twenty-eight years after the fact, Biden “shared . . . his regret” about the way the Senate Judiciary Committee, then chaired by him, dealt with Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
According to The Intercept, at the time, Hill had been “eviscerated by a panel of 14 male senators.” Besides expressing regret for “what she endured,” Biden reportedly told Hill that he admired her “for everything she has done to change the culture around sexual harassment in this country.” Too little, too late.
Google “Donald Trump” and “apology” and you will not find examples of our commander-in-chief apologizing, but rather, headlines such as, “Trump demands apology from Congresswomen,” and “Trump refuses to apologize.”
When the “grab them by the p****” video went viral, Trump released a videotaped so-called apology. The New York Times ran a transcript at the time, which includes statements such as, “I’ve said some foolish things, but there’s a big difference between the words and actions of other people. Bill Clinton has actually abused women, and Hillary has bullied, attacked, shamed and intimidated his victims.” Hardly apologetic words.
The effect of such behaviors is exactly the opposite of what one seeks when apologizing to someone. If you point to the other person’s faults, like Trump did, it doesn’t look like you are truly sorry and owning your mistake. If you wait 28 years, like Biden did, and only mildly apologize at a time when this could improve your public image, you are also sending the wrong message.
According to California attorney Jill Switzer, who was once a deputy district attorney, the apologies she observes during mediation are sometimes “heartfelt and show empathy for the other side’s position, even if they don’t necessarily agree with it.” On other occasions, “apologies are rote, mechanical, and insincere and can be seen as insulting and condescending in a ploy to drive a settlement number lower. In those cases, apologies are better left unsaid.”
Characteristics of a Good Apology
It Shows Empathy
If the recipient feels that you understand how they must have felt, they are more likely to genuinely accept your apology and allow the professional relationship to move forward.
It Expresses Gratitude
In addition to taking responsibility for having been unable to complete a task in a timely manner, you may add, “Thanks for your patience as we do our very best to produce the expected results in the face of certain obstacles. It is truly appreciated.” Gratitude has been proven to be one of the human expressions that creates the most connection between two people, and one that makes both the person uttering the words of gratitude and the recipient feel better about themselves.
It Is Accompanied by Remedial Action
No matter how genuine the apology, if you have nothing to show for your commitment to making things right, it will likely be perceived as “just words.” Do something about it and, when you apologize, present not only the mistake but also the solution, which is already in motion.
Try to Avoid Saying “Sorry”
Make your apology about your commitment to excellence. The word ‘sorry’ is plagued with negative connotations. Make your apology about responsibility, rather than regret.
Be Assertive Rather than Emotional
A matter-of-fact approach is the way to go when you are trying to apologize about a work-related mistake. Do, by all means, own your mistake, but try to appear confident and secure in your words. This is a time for truth, responsibility, and trust-building. Leave the emotion and the drama out.
Do Not Make Impossible Promises
Be honest, be realistic. Don’t say, “we failed to deliver on time, but next time, we will work 10 times faster,” unless you are 100 percent sure you can deliver. This can be a great strategy when you know there is zero chance of failure, but that hardly ever happens, so, try to promise something you are 100 percent sure you can accomplish.
Let the Recipient Express Their Frustration, Open the Door to Constructive Feedback
You are apologizing, so, you have a lot to say. But listening is equally important. Show that you understand the other person’s frustration, ask them how you can do better. Try to gain insight into their needs. In the end, you have to try to take this failure and transform it into an opportunity to improve your work and your relationship with the person receiving the apology.