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When to Apologize at Work

Apologizing is a way to acknowledge that our actions had unintended or hurtful consequences. Understanding whether we have actually acted in a way that deserves an apology, however, is highly contested. Some people belong to the school of “Never apologize or you’ll be seen as weak!” and others of us belong to the school that teaches apology as a reflex. Finding a balance between over-apologizing and never apologizing is key to maintaining credibility at work.

Never apologizing hurts your credibility and relationships.

“Admissions of wrongdoing are incredibly threatening for non-apologists because they have trouble separating their actions from their character.” (Psychology Today) These individuals may have been taught that apologizing will only show people their weaknesses. If they admit that they did something bad, then they must be bad too, and people will associate their admission with their personality. This is untrue. People are much more likely to associate a lack of empathy for a situation with the individual’s personality than a sincere and meaningful apology. Most people will see a warranted apology as humanizing, and will subsequently forgive the action.

Over-apologizing undercuts your own actions, don’t throw yourself under the bus!

Over-apologizing is “when we apologize for things that are clearly not our fault, not in our control, or otherwise unworthy of apology.” (Psychology Today)
Tweet: Over-apologizing is “when we apologize for things that are clearly not our fault, not in our control, or otherwise unworthy of apology.” (Psychology Today) #careeradvice #apology
Many of us, myself included, grew up never wanting to offer offense to anyone. This not only diminishes the efficacy of sincerely warranted apologies but impedes our conflict resolution abilities. It can also undermine our reputations, casting us in a weak light. Many people with quote-unquote “leadership qualities” say that they never apologize. In most situations, this is untrue. People with true leadership qualities have figured out when to use an apology to strengthen a relationship, and when one wouldn’t be productive.

Finding the balance between over-apologizing and never apologizing.

Apologies can be opportunities to resolve interpersonal conflict when applied correctly. This is an important skill in any work-place. However, it can be difficult to break bad habits that we have been using as a crutch for years. If you “never apologize”, reflect on some situations when one might have helped to repair hurt feelings. In your apology, detach personal blame with statements of fact. For example: “I misread, I forgot, I made a mistake.” If you “always apologize”, think of a time when you apologized for something that wasn’t your fault or responsibility. Could you have refrained your response to the situation? Instead of a reflexive “I’m sorry” to being late to a lunch date with a co-worker, try “The traffic was bad, next time I’ll leave a little earlier.”

Examples of situations where an apology is warranted:
  • You introduced someone by the wrong name during a meeting
  • You made a negligent error in a report
  • You arrived at work noticeably late and without a good reason
  • You insulted someone (intentionally or unintentionally)

Examples of situations where an apology isn’t necessary, though a plan for improvement or explanation might be:
  • You made an honest mistake in a report, not due to negligence or lack of foresight
  • You were 5 minutes late to a meeting because your boss was talking to you
  • You were in the bathroom and missed an unplanned call
  • You were on vacation and need to be filled in on a project already underway

Apologizing face-to-face is always preferable but sometimes isn’t an option. Click here for examples of how to write apology emails.

What were you taught growing up? Leave me a comment below!
  • Never apologize or you’ll be seen as weak.
  • If you think you might have done something wrong, apologize.

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  1. I can attest to that: a boss that never apologizes attracts zero sympathy. Mine is like that and even when it's very obvious that she made a mistake, she'll just shrug it off and that makes her seem sooooo cold and self-satisfied.
    Consequence is that if she gets in trouble or gets fired for her actions, no one will defend her because everyone will think she had it coming.
    Of course over-apologizing (not her case though) might make a boss seem like s/he lacks self confidence and that's not good either!

  2. I definitely agree, shrugging something off is as good as telling your employees that you don't value them or their feelings. It might just be a lack of self-reflection, but even more damaging can be when they know they should apologize and actively so not in order to "save face." Practicing healthy apology habits helps us to prepare for leadership roles!

    Don't forget, people don't leave jobs, they leave managers. If your leadership isn't treating you with respect, there are others who will :)

    Thanks for sharing your perspective, Kate! -Ve from Cat Among Pixies


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