A good apology starts with the words “I'm sorry,” but doesn’t end there.

Share story

It’s not a matter of if, but when. Sooner or later, we will all screw up.

Unfortunately, in the workplace, worries about losing face sometimes prevent us from apologizing, even though it’s what we know is the right thing to do.

It’s too bad, because extending apologies (not the fake kind but the real kind) is a useful workplace skill that can strengthen relationships and build reputations. In fact, a missed apology is a missed opportunity.

Sure, it’s embarrassing to be in the wrong. Your first reaction may be denial or even anger. But a mark of true maturity is the ability to own up to our shortcomings, take responsibility for them and seek ways to mitigate the damage.

Believe it or not, this isn’t as hard as it sounds.

The best way to start is to look past your own emotions and focus on the feelings of the injured party. Take time to listen to their side. Very often just the experience of being heard inclines people to think well of you and to overlook whatever the offense was.

At the same time, don’t count on instant exoneration. Some people need a little space to process the hurt. In the case of work-related errors (missed deliveries, wasted company resources, lost customers, etc.), it may take time and effort to deal with the fallout.

When it comes to the actual act, promptness counts. So does eye contact. A brief and sincere apology made on the spot is far more effective than a wordy email that comes only after a protracted interval of dithering and denial.

Finally, be aware that genuine apologies never include the word “if.” Everyone knows, or should know, that “I’m sorry if anyone was offended” or “If I let you down, I didn’t mean to” are not good apologies. Ditto for excuses made in the passive tense (“Mistakes were made,” for example) or any other wording that seeks to deflect blame or responsibility.

Of course, you should never apologize for things that aren’t your fault, or reflexively say “I’m sorry” about everything. That’s a subject for another day! What we really need to always keep in mind is that an apology is not a sign of weakness but of strength and class.