When "sorry" seems to be the hardest word

Submitted by Mark on 30th July 2018

HR, employees, management, workplace relationships

So, you messed up at work.  What happened?  Did you forget a deadline?  Did you miss a client appointment?  Perhaps you accidentally offended a colleague with a careless comment? Or was your presentation to the board below par?

Whatever.  Mistakes happen.  They happen in the office.  They happen in the warehouse or on the factory floor.  They happen between colleagues who get on and between those who are not best mates.  Mistakes happen in so many ways.  Shouldn’t we just get over them and move on?

Bad for relationships - bad for profits

Well - ‘moving on’ isn’t such a great idea.  If we all ducked our responsibility to apologise, we’d soon be stuck in pretty dysfunctional workplaces.  In no time at all, relationships would grind to a halt and so would company profits.

Let’s look more closely at why apologies matter. 

An effective apology -

• acknowledges a wrong

• expresses personal remorse

• demonstrates our sense of accountability

• recognises both the feelings of others and one’s own shortcomings

• opens up a dialogue with the offended party

• forms the first step towards making things better

• is a declaration that every attempt will be made to avoid a repetition.

Yes - ‘sorry’ - that little two-syllable word, applied properly, covers every single one of those elements.

When is an apology not an apology?

The answer - far too often.  Here are some common examples.  Take a look and see which ones satisfy all the above criteria and earn the right to be called, ‘proper apologies’. 

Apology - I’m sorry if I upset you

True meaning - I don’t acknowledge that my action gave you a valid reason to be upset.

Apology - I’m sorry that you’re upset.

True meaning - It’s a shame that you’re upset.  It’s not my fault.

Apology - I’m sorry for the distress caused.

True meaning - (a favourite of politicians, or those technically, but not directly, responsible for a mistake) - It wasn’t me that made the mistake, but I acknowledge that it did cause distress.

Apologising is a crucial, learned social skill.  But it’s one which seems to evade many of us.  So often, vanity, insecurity, or the desire to save face, gets in the way.  As Elton John so eloquently put it, ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word.’

Sometimes an apology can seem unnecessary or trivial.  But even then, acknowledging your mistake and suggesting a solution can go a long way.  Admitting fault might seem like an acknowledgement of weakness, but it shouldn’t be.  Acknowledging responsibility for a mistake shows courage, integrity, and empathy - important traits in the workplace.

7 steps to effective apologising

Saying sorry in the workplace isn’t always easy.  It often needs to be dealt with thoughtfully and sensitively.  Depending on how severe your mistake was, you need courage to apologise.  So, here are the seven steps of the effective apology.

1. Be sincere

If you don’t mean it, don’t bother saying it.  There’s no point.  Anyway, people will easily see through an insincere apology and it will only make matters worse.

2. Empathise

Put yourself in the shoes of the wronged party.  How would you feel?  Understanding their emotions will make your apology much easier.

3. Take full responsibility

Understand your mistake and acknowledge responsibility for it happening.  This is no time for mealy-mouthed excuses.  None of us enjoy being wrong.  But owning our mistake gives the message that you’re genuine.

4. Recognise and respect the injured party’s feelings

We’re all human - all capable of emotions.  It’s important to acknowledge these emotions in others.  When we apologise, we must acknowledge specifically how our actions impacted on others.

5. Don’t make excuses, but explain why you made the mistake

Distinguish the fine line between a reason and an excuse. Saying “My parrot ate my homework” is a barely believable excuse.  But - say, “I struggled to understand the homework,” provides a reasonable explanation for why it wasn’t completed.

6. Suggest ways to make amend

Researchers at the University of Miami discovered that “the extent to which a transgressor offered conciliatory gestures to their victims was directly proportional to the extent to which those victims forgave over time.”

So - always try and offer a realistic solution.  This will almost always go down well.

7. Learn from it

We all mess up.  It’s normal.  But we can always turn mistakes into a positive.  Our apology is part of the learning process.  For an apology to be genuine it’s no good saying ‘sorry’.  We also have to do sorry.  We have to show that we’ll do our best not to repeat the same mistake.

Apologies are rarely easy.  They can be awkward - uncomfortable.  But isn’t this how it should be?  A reminder to consider our actions carefully and the effect they might have on others - a powerful deterrent against selfish behaviour.

Ultimately, saying sorry can only make us better people.

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