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How to Apologize to Your Staff

One attribute of a good leader is the ability to sincerely apologize for mistakes. This takes skill and experience. Sometimes an apology delivered with the best of intentions leaves the recipient feeling worse. 

Have you ever received an apology followed by “but”? “I’m sorry I forgot to check in with you first, but it was really busy and we were short-staffed.” The implication is that when it gets busy, I have higher priorities than my commitment to check in with you. Feel better now?

Then there’s blaming someone else. “I would have recognized your part in building the display but Jane didn’t tell me you worked on it.” In other words, if it weren’t for Jane, I would have done the right thing. Be mad at Jane, not me!

Most insulting of all is the insincere apology that takes no account of the apologizer’s role in the situation and blames the recipient. “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry you were upset.” 

How to do it right

So how do you make an effective apology? For answers, I drew on the wisdom of medieval rabbi and philosopher Maimonides and other guidance for Yom Kippur, the Days of Atonement. I also found insight here: http://www.cuppacocoa.com/a-better-way-to-say-sorry/, on teaching children about apology and forgiveness, and here: www.sorrywatch.com, a website that analyzes apologies in the media, history and literature. 

Based on these sources, I’ve generated some guidelines for leaders in the workplace.  See sidebar below.

Guidelines to apologizing

1. Say precisely what you’re sorry for. What did you actually do (or fail to do)? Instead of referring vaguely to “recent events” or “what happened,” describe those events. Use I statements and avoid the passive voice. (“I made the decision without getting your input first,” rather than “The decision was made without staff input.”)

2. Acknowledge why your actions were wrong. Did you break an agreement? How was the other person inconvenienced or harmed? Show you understand the impact of your transgression. Sometimes people want to feel understood more than they want an apology. (“I broke an agreement we had. You were expecting that I’d get your input first and I failed to do that.”)

3. If the original wrong was committed in public, such as forgetting to recognize someone’s contribution or erroneously accusing someone of a wrongdoing, the apology should be delivered in public, as well. (Granted, this is not easy!)

4. Say what you’ll do differently from now on. Use positive language to tell what you will do. (“From now on, when I need to make a decision that will impact your workload or your schedule, I will talk with you first.”)

Now that you’ve delivered your apology, the writers and bloggers are split on whether to ask for forgiveness. Some recommend making the ask as the final step of an apology, while others feel this puts the onus back on the person who has been wronged. I tend to side with this crowd. Also consider the power dynamics. Who is going to say no to their boss? 

Instead, I suggest making space to just listen. The technique of active listening could help here. Reflect back what you hear without arguing, defending or making excuses. But also be prepared for the recipient to make no more than a brief acknowledgement. 

Note that all these steps require face-to-face interaction. If you can’t apologize in person, try videoconference or phone. Tone of voice matters. Don’t expect an email or text to carry the freight of your apology.

Finally, what really matters is what you do going forward. The best apology is changed behaviour.

 

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