Offering a Successful Apology

Cathy and I had been friendly colleagues for about a year when I asked her to do a special favor for me. I could tell immediately that she was uncomfortable with my request, and over the next few days she was distinctly cooler to me. I didn’t think my request was out of line, but clearly she did. What to do next? Knowing when and how to offer an apology is an essential skill for successful business leadership. We all make mistakes, inadvertently offend someone, or are intentionally hurtful. A sincere, artful apology can get a relationship back on track, both personally and professionally. Here are three traps to watch out for:

  1. Apology avoidance. Some people feel it is demeaning to offer an apology, that it makes them seem weak or subordinate. Nonsense! It is unwillingness to offer an appropriate apology that makes you seem insecure – and rude.
  2. The fake apology. The classic example is, “I’m so sorry you feel that way.” What?! That’s not an apology, it’s patronizing. A true apology says, “I was wrong, I am sorry, and I won’t do it again.” Sometimes you may indeed feel that the other person over-reacted. In that case, how about saying, “I’m sorry, I was clumsy. I didn’t mean to offend you, but I did. I’ll be more thoughtful next time.”
  3. The excessive apology. This is more often a problem for women than for men. It can involve being overly obsequious, such as “OMG, I can’t believe I said that to you. I am such an idiot – I am so sorry. I don’t know how you can ever forgive me …” Or if can mean apologizing too often. I have found myself apologizing over and over for the same misdeed, which only keeps reminding the other person of my misstep. Once is usually enough. Apologize sincerely and then shut up.

When I realized something had gone awry with Cathy, I called her. I was right – she felt my request was inappropriate. I apologized and told her it mattered to me to have a good relationship with her. We are friendly colleagues to this day – and she has done me a lot of favors since then.

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