Workplace Apologies: When They’re Warranted and How to Make One

Workplace Apologies: When They’re Warranted and How to Make OneKids are taught to say, “I’m sorry,” as soon they can move independently and wreak havoc on others; stealing a toy, hitting, saying unkind things or being unwilling to share. While those few words can quickly become reflexive and automatic, a genuine apology can be rare, even among adults.

Especially in the workplace, apologizing can be scary as we worry about showing weakness.  Research does show that over-apologizing can lead to a loss of respect, lessen the impact of actual apologies, lower your self-esteem and just annoy others. But when actual harm has been done, a genuine apology is one of the only routes to repairing relationships, reducing conflict and rebuilding trust.

Who’s most likely to apologize

It may not surprise you to hear that, on average, women apologize more often than men. But at least one study published by the National Library of Medicine found that the reason for the difference lies with what men and women perceive as offensive behavior. Men simply had a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior; when they judged their own behavior as offensive, they apologized at similar rates as women.

The frequency with which we apologize also has cultural roots. A poll of 1,600 British people and 1,000 Americans by YouGov found fifteen British “sorries” for every ten American apologies. Frequent apologizers may simply be more empathetic and more careful about causing even small harm to others. For example, Brits are more likely than Americans to apologize for sneezing, being late or standing in someone’s way.

Certainly, there is nothing wrong with being considerate, but you may want exercise a little caution about the frequent use of unwarranted apologetic language. When overdone, it can make you appear less confident, lessen your power in negotiations, and even become a verbal tic similar to phrases such as “um.”

What constitutes a good apology

Once you’ve decided an apology is in order, do it in a way that will help prompt real reconciliation. We’ve all seen high-profile “apologies” from politicians and others that are more like non-apologies. Those can create more hurt rather than healing. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, says an effective apology should contain these elements.

  1. Acknowledge the wrongdoing by recognizing who was responsible, who was harmed and the nature of the offense itself. When this step is glossed over (such as when people say “I’m sorry you feel hurt.”) the apology lacks any real sincerity and points blame at the victim. By specifically acknowledging the who, how and what, you can offer true amends. You might say, “I’m sorry I was so curt with you in my office yesterday.”
  2. Provide an explanation, but not an excuse. “In some cases, it’s helpful to explain an offense, especially to convey that it was not intentional and that it will not happen again,” according to Greater Good. But be careful of letting it devolve into an excuse or blaming the other person for your bad behavior.
  3. Express remorse. This part is tough, and perhaps even more so in the workplace where you may be especially concerned about saving face. But it’s the most powerful part. When you regret your behavior or hurt someone else, it’s natural to feel shame, humiliation and remorse. When you express those feelings candidly (and succinctly), you recognize the hurt you’ve caused and the other person’s right to be made whole. You also make it more likely that you can learn from your mistake and move on.
  4. Make amends. “A good apology should include efforts to repair the damage done,” according to Greater Good. In some instances, a tangible repair can be made, such as replacing something you’ve damaged. In the workplace, the repair may more likely involve taking clear steps to improve your behavior. It can be particularly effective to ask the injured party what would mean the most to them. If you left someone in the lurch on a key project, offer to do more than your share to bring it to completion. If you over-reacted to a situation, used harsh wording or embarrassed someone in front of others, a more public apology might be in order.

Alternatives to apologies

If you suspect you may be an over-apologizer, assess your own behaviors or ask a trusted colleague for feedback. Check emails for unnecessary apologies before hitting send and keep track of reflexive “sorries” that likely don’t carry much weight but can make you look timid.

You might also consider alternatives to the low-level apology which rely on more empowered language. For example, if a colleague points to an erroneous piece of information or a typo in your draft report, thank them for catching it rather than immediately apologizing. You might also consider when it feels appropriate to disconnect “no” and “I’m sorry.” If you can’t join colleagues at an after-work happy hour, it’s fine to simply say, “I need some downtime at home, but maybe next time.” No apology required.

The more you reserve genuine apologies for regrettable behavior and results, the greater impact they will have in difficult situations. That’s where the real impact of an apology lives — in showing others that you know they deserve better, and in committing to do better.