The Wrong Way to Apologize at Work

In my last series I focused on how people perceive what we say or do. Sometimes, what we say or do is an innocent mistake and sometimes we have simply messed up. In either case it serves us to know how to apologize.

Many people apologize in a manner that seems to add insult to injury, compounding the issue rather than making amends. The key to an effective apology is our ability to be authentic, sincere and other-focused when we apologize.


We take it for granted, but there is an inauthentic way to apologize which is not well received. Who has not said something in the heat of the moment that they regret? Everyone makes mistakes. We make insensitive statements, we speak before we think, and we let our emotions get the best of us. Then, to make things worse we bungle our apology!

When we make the apology all about ourselves we fail to meet the needs of those offended. Click To Tweet

No workplace or person is perfect. Managers berate subordinates in meetings. Colleagues make snide remarks about each other. Even worse, people send emails, texts, or tweets without giving sufficient consideration to how the messages will be received. This makes our insensitivities more public and all the more egregious.

Even seasoned executives are not immune from foot-in-mouth disorder. For example Tony Hayward, former CEO of British Petroleum, famously complained that he “wanted his life back” in the midst of the 2010 oil spill. He later apologized to the families of the workers who had died in the tragedy, as well as the thousands of people whose lives were completely disrupted.

Former Harvard President and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had to apologize in 2005 for his contention that “innate differences” between men and women accounted for the under-representation of women in the sciences. Senior advertising executive Justine Sacco was fired for posting an insensitive and racist tweet about AIDS in Africa. And more recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella apologized for suggesting that women should not speak up about pay inequities.

It is time for an apology. But apologies can be tricky and can backfire. Without some forethought, an apology — public or private — is no guarantee you will redeem yourself. More often than not, however, your apology fails because you apologize in an inauthentic way. Most people approach it with some version of:

  • “I am sorry, I didn’t mean to —-, I was only trying to —-.”
  • “I was not implying that you —-, I only wanted to express my —-.”
  • “I had a good reason for saying —-, please understand where I am coming from.”

In other words, when we make the apology all about ourselves by justifying, explaining, and coating it with our own polish we fail to meet the needs of the people we have offended.

Think about the last time you had to apologize to someone. Did you try to explain yourself? Defend yourself? It is a natural tendency but does not serve us in this situation. How much of your apology focused on the other person and their feelings? How much of your apology focused on yourself?

In my work, I see this cycle happening a lot. I have done it, we all have. Maybe it’s time to work on improving the way we craft an apology by first standing in another’s shoes. What are your experiences? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me or let’s connect on LinkedIn.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *