Apologies in the workplace – they matter

Human Resources 6th May 2021

You don’t have to be a football fan to realise that something was afoot last month with the ‘people’s game’. A cursory glance at the news media will have told you that the 12 wealthiest clubs in Europe had caused something of a storm in a football cup – a storm that had caused collective apoplexy amongst even the most half-hearted of part-time armchair followers.

So what has all this to do with the world of HR – the workplace? Well, what has intrigued us particularly are the apologies issued by those clubs who, faced with a cacophony of protest, realised their massive PR gaffe. They decided that back-pedalling was their best option.

Beware the mealy-mouthed ‘mistakes were made’

Apologies, especially in the world of politics and corporate business usually revolve around damage and reputation limitation. You hear mealy-mouthed passive phrases such as ‘mistakes were made’, ‘lessons will be learned’. The choice of words underlines what we know already – that no-one is brave enough or honest enough to admit, ‘I/we got it wrong’, ‘I/we messed up’.

But – not so last month with the football clubs. Someone at the highest level of each one recognised that a direct confession would be the best policy. So we saw expressions such as =

In this endeavour I’ve let you down.” – John Henry, owner of Liverpool.

We made a mistake, and we apologise for it … We didn’t make the right decision here, which we fully accept.” – the board at Arsenal.

When ‘sorry’ seems to be the hardest word

Let’s think about the role of the apology in the workplace. When and how should we go about addressing our own shortcomings.

Maybe we missed a deadline, made a glaring error, or had a tense miscommunication with a co-worker. It happens. There are so many ways to mess up at work. But luckily, there are almost just as many ways to put things right.

We all know that apologising is a vital social skill, but what’s the best way to say sorry in the workplace?

There’s more to it than shrugging and saying, “I’m sorry.” An effective apology is one that acknowledges a situation and ultimately makes things better. It’s a learned skill, and not one that comes naturally. If we take a little time to be thoughtful, we can learn some techniques to make our apologies as smooth and effective as they can be.

Why bother apologising?

What’s the point of an apology? What are we trying to achieve?

In general, most apologies serve four major purposes:

1. To demonstrates genuine remorse for your actions.

2. To acknowledge the feelings of other people affected by your actions.

3. To reassure others that you’ll endeavour to avoid any kind of a repeat.

4. Apologising opens up a dialogue with your co-workers. It can serve to re-establish trust or repair relationships. It demonstrates your sense of accountability.

Here’s a key point – acknowledging fault might seem like a weakness – an admission of failure. It’s not. In fact, it’s the opposite. Taking responsibility for a mistake shows integrity, courage, and empathy – all valuable traits in the workplace.

7 steps to effective apologising

Saying sorry in the workplace can be a sensitive issue. Here are seven points to think about before you start.

1. Be sincere

Don’t apologise if you don’t mean it. People can usually tell when you’re not sincere. It’s worthless and disrespectful. Always start from a sincere place.

2Empathize with enthusiasm

Put yourself in others’ shoes. What would you want to hear if the situation were reversed? Talk yourself through the steps to truly understand where they are coming from and how they are feeling. Do they feel betrayed? Frustrated? Embarrassed? Understanding the emotions involved makes the rest of your apology much easier.

3. Take true responsibility

Understand how you messed up, and own it. This can be the hardest part. Your natural instinct is to be defensive. Don’t you hate being wrong? But owning a mistake conveys to the other person that you’re sincere and empathise with how they feel. It’s the part of saying sorry that some people skip, but it demonstrates courage and confidence.

4. Validate the other person’s feelings

We aren’t robots. We’re emotional creatures who need to have others know that our feelings are legitimate. Communicating that you understand – specifically how your actions affected others goes a long way to repairing the damage.

You can express your regret out loud –

– ‘I can see how this made you feel left out’

– ‘I don’t want to undermine your authority’

– ‘I should be more respectful of your privacy’

5. Don’t give excuses, give reasons

There’s a fine line here.  ‘The dog ate my homework’ is an excuse (and probably a lie!). ‘I had trouble understanding the homework,’ offers a reasoned explanation.

6. Suggest ways to make up for your mistake

Researchers at the University of Miami found 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.”

Offering a solution for a mistake or suggesting realistic ways to prevent it from happening again can make a real difference as to how your apology will be received.

7. Learn

Screwing up is part of life. We have to make our apology and learn for the future. Depending on what you did, it might take a few tries to actually stop making that mistake, but at the very least, try to take a morsel of wisdom from what happened.


Moving on

Apologies can be uncomfortable, but that’s OK. They remind us to think about other people’s feelings before acting, and a powerful disincentive for selfish behaviour. In the end, saying sorry is good – for workplace relations and for us as individuals.

For more on keeping your workplace harmonious and an appealing, engaging place to be, talk to us at Gravitas HR.

For straight-talking HR advice – 01604 763494

Or email – info@GravitasHR.co.uk

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