Everyone makes mistakes. That's why a good apology is one of the most important tools in workplace communication. If you make a big mistake, it's important to consider the best way to apologize for the mishap, whether it's to your boss, employees or co-workers. Especially as a manager, the first step toward apologizing is your mindset: You have to own your mistakes.
"Own it and don't try to hide it or blame anyone else," said Vicki Salemi, career expert with Monster. "It's always best to be succinct; don't ramble. 'This is what happened, I'm responsible, this is what I'm going to do to fix it, and this is what I learned.'"
There are some universal rules to apologies that everyone should follow at work, but there are also some important distinctions for managers and peer-to-peer apologies. In general, it's not a smart strategy to apologize for every little thing you do wrong. Instead, focus on acknowledging the problem and talking through a solution. Workplace apologies, while appropriate in some instances, should take place after big mistakes or when your whole team or a group of co-workers witnesses a mess-up. Apologizing 24/7 can create the wrong impression in the workplace, according to Salemi.
While apologies can be awkward, they can also serve as a window into your company's culture. If you find yourself issuing an appropriate apology that is still not well received, it may be time to analyze your current workplace and how good of a fit it is. This also goes for when managers and co-workers apologize (or fail to apologize).
"Bosses aren't above the law," Salemi said. "Leadership stems from the top down."
4 steps to the perfect work apology
1. Acknowledge what happened.
Acknowledging the event serves two purposes: It validates your team's ideas on what occurred, and it defines the mess-up so people know what you're apologizing for. This is a very simple first step, but it's an important one to take. Part of apologizing involves communicating empathy and convincing the other party that you understand how your behavior affects others. Mentioning the event sets you up for an empathetic, simple apology.
2. Admit your mistake, but don't focus on your initial intentions.
After acknowledging the event, you have to own your mistake. This is the most important part of the apology. Oftentimes, people make excuses, blame others or don't appropriately take responsibility. Apologizing can be awkward, but if you take responsibility, your peers and manager may respect you more in the long run. A good apology exposes one's character, so treat the action as just that: an exercise in good character.
"Own up to your part in whatever happened," said Tara Vossenkemper, owner of The Counseling Hub. "When you have an otherwise good relationship with your boss, employee or co-worker, taking ownership of your role only serves to strengthen that relationship and build trust between the two of you."
Vossenkemper said that a good apology doesn't involve extensive explanations about why the event happened. Moving into this territory can bog you down in the apology – you don't want to focus on why something happened and its lead-up. Instead, own your mistake and move on to how you can improve the situation. Focusing on an explanation can also sound defensive. You may feel like you want to say your piece, and sometimes it's justified, but oftentimes the person you're apologizing to won't care about your original intentions. The mistake happened, and it's time to figure out how to remedy it.
"Just say you're sorry for the specific thing you did and leave it at that," Vossenkemper said. "The only thing the explanation does is dig a metaphorical hole and make your listener feel defensive, as though you're trying to rationalize or excuse your behavior."
3. Focus on what you learned.
The best thing you can do during an apology is talk about what lesson the situation has taught you or your team. Mistakes happen in the business world, and Salemi said that some company cultures actually encourage mistakes because they're growth opportunities. By prioritizing what you have learned from the mistake, you can shift the discussion toward something positive. Everyone makes mistakes; the real problem comes from allowing the same mistake to happen more than once.
"Bosses and colleagues want to know that we won't make the same mistake again," said Bob Graham, co-founder and CEO of Serious Soft Skills. "Show them you learned the lesson by explaining, in a sentence or two, what lesson you learned."
Graham said managers and colleagues want to see their peers evolve and learn. By focusing on the lesson in your apology, you can communicate that you're an intelligent, self-aware employee who can handle responsibility and problems with grace.
"A good apology can open, not close, doors," Graham said.
4. Suggest a plan or solution.
After talking about the lesson you've learned, suggest a plan, talk through a solution, or mention a way you can help rectify the situation. This is the second stage to shifting the discussion away from the mistake and toward a positive outcome. By communicating your willingness to help, you back up the lesson you learned from the mistake with meaningful action.
If you follow these steps, you'll put yourself in the best position possible after a big mistake in the workplace. Each situation is different, but if you follow this plan, your co-workers, manager or employees will eventually come around.
Example of a good apology
Here's a basic example of a good apology that follows these four steps:
"Hi, Anna. I want to apologize for the mistake in this month's budget. I didn't communicate properly with the team, which is why the numbers don't match up. I now know to include Bennett and Kiely in all my future budget meetings, because they have vital input. I've adjusted the numbers and can resubmit this month's budget now if you feel that's an appropriate course of action. Thank you for working with me on this."
Other tips for a good apology
The above four steps are ideal for creating an apology. However, there are some other tips to keep in mind when you apologize. These are important and related to the nature of the apology.
- Keep it short and to the point. Multiple experts suggest keeping your apologies quick and painless. Long ramblings can make the apology uncomfortable and result in the actual apology getting lost in the middle of a long discussion. Don't dwell on what happened, and don't try to explain your situation. Say sorry and move into lessons and solutions. Afterward, move on. There's no need to linger on what happened.
- Do it as soon as possible. Don't wait to apologize. It's important to rectify the situation immediately so everyone can move on.
- It's OK if it's awkward. Apologies are awkward, especially when they're in person. Embrace the awkwardness and weirdness of the situation. Remind yourself that apologizing properly is an exercise in good character before anything else. As Graham said earlier, sometimes an apology opens doors. When you apologize, don't worry about feeling awkward or vulnerable. It comes with the territory.
- Try to apologize in person. While email apologies are sometimes appropriate, you should try to apologize in person if you made a big mistake. While it may be awkward or difficult, your colleagues will respect you for taking the time to apologize directly. You also may leave with a better resolution – it's often easier to connect on these issues in person than over email. Everyone knows how empty a "no problem" email response can be.
How to apologize as a manager
The above rules apply to managers as well. These tips can provide more insight into how managers should apologize to their team if they make a mistake. The most important aspect of an apology from management is owning the mistake. Managers have to lead by example. By showing you're not afraid to be wrong, you empower your team to do the same.
- Apologize in front of your team. The general rule is if you make a mistake in "public" within your company, you should apologize in front of your whole team. This should be in person or over video chat (if you manage remote employees) and should spur discussion about lessons and solutions moving forward. Again, apologizing can be an opportunity to practice company culture and embrace the benefits of making mistakes.
- Apologize in private. If an incident occurs with a specific employee and other team members witness it, it's important to apologize to that person in private and again in front of the whole team. A "public" apology can provide justice to your employee and show that you're aware of what happened. The private apology can further heal any wounds the event caused.
What apologies say about company culture
You're going to make mistakes at work, and you're going to have to apologize for them. Salemi recommends taking note of how your apologies are received at work. She said workers should be aware of how their colleagues and bosses apologize when they make mistakes. If people are routinely making excuses, covering up problems or stubbornly blaming others for issues, it may be time to consider a switch to a new company. As with any job, task or relationship, everyone's true colors are exposed when things get difficult and people are tested. Mistakes and apologies provide windows into who your colleagues really are, giving you an opportunity to assess your current working situation and determine if the culture is the right fit for you.