General Business

Communicating an Apology: 101

Apologies are a funny thing. Some are accepted and some aren’t. Certain apologies are accepted by some, and not others.  For leaders and managers of all stripes, knowing when and how to communicate a prompt and sincere apology is one of the keys to earning the respect of those around you.

Think about it.  In business, we all have so much on our plate. There are countless meetings where we may need to present important information.  There are dozens if not hundreds of e-mails that go out every day to update key stakeholders on specific projects and initiatives, not to mention juggling all of this while still coaching, mentoring and leading your team.

With this great volume of activity, there is bound to be a mistake made at some point.  It is unavoidable.  However, as a leader, what we do when we make a mistake is what will ultimately determine how we are received and perceived by others.

With that said, consider some of the dos and don’ts when it comes to apologizing:

  • Apologize quickly. If it takes longer than 24 hours—especially in a high-profile  or very public situation—people become suspect.  When you do apologize, do it willingly in a proactive fashion, instead of waiting to have your back against the wall and after testing the public reaction to the situation.
  • When apologizing, give specifics.  What exactly are you apologizing for?  Lawyers often tell their clients to be vague and general when apologizing.  And if there is more than one thing to apologize for, they recommend apologizing for the least embarrassing mistake.  Yet, communication experts know that apologies must be specific to be accepted.  When using vague generalities in an apology, most audiences don’t buy it, because they are not convinced you are really acknowledging what exactly you did wrong.
  • When apologizing, talk directly about what you are going to do to fix the situation, if possible. Just saying you are going to “fix it” isn’t enough.  How are you going to fix it?  How are you going to measure whether the same mistake is made again?  It is easy to say, “I’m sorry.  This isn’t going to happen again.”  It is a lot harder to say, “I take responsibility and apologize for X and am going to do XYZ to make sure it never happens again.”
  • Apologize face-to-face. Do not rely on e-mail or an organization-wide memo sent to employees to express your apology. That is the easy way out and sends the message that you are afraid to confront the situation head on.  We all make mistakes, so when you do, apologize in person, face-to-face, and be willing and open to receive feedback and answer any questions from those in your audience.  Doing so sends the message that you truly care about how your mistake impacted them and that you are interested in hearing their perspective.
  • Apologies must pass the credibility test.  Sometimes, no matter how sincere you can be when apologizing, if your offense or mistake is so egregious, it is going to fall on deaf ears.  That is not to say that you can’t rebound from such a situation, however, it means you will have to go the extra mile in terms of your apology as well as the actions you take after you apologize to show that you are willing to put in the time and effort to make things right.
  • Move on. In most situations, if you apologize keeping the above tips and tools in mind, your apology will be accepted and everyone can move on with the work at hand.  However, if you feel you have done everything in your power to truly apologize and for reasons outside your control your apology is not accepted, you need to let it go and move on.  Overthinking or carrying the extra weight of the unaccepted apology could cause you to lose focus, thereby increasing the potential of future mistakes, and nothing good will come of that.
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