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two freelancers sitting at a table apologizing to each other

How to Apologize for a Mistake at Work

Emily Schmidt
Emily Schmidt

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It can be scary to do something wrong at work. Whether you make a mistake with a client, colleague, or even your boss, it's important to know how to apologize at work. Learning to apologize properly is something that can be used not only professionally, but also in your home life. In this article, we're going to share a framework for how to apologize and different examples of how this can be applied at work. 

Harriet Lerner is a master of apologies. She writes a lot about the most effective ways to apologize and what all apologies should include.

#1 Does not include the word “but”

An apology at work or at home should not include the word 'but'. If you say 'I'm sorry I missed our meeting, but....' it comes across that you're making excuses for your actions. A better way to reframe this would be 'I'm sorry I missed our meeting. In the future, I'll aim to be more punctual.'

#2 Keeps the focus on your actions and not the other person’s response

In your professional apology, focus on your actions, and not how the other person responded. This isn't a time to harp on what the other person did wrong in their communication or how they responded to your interaction. 

Take responsibility by saying, 'I'm sorry that my words brought so much hurt and anxiety' instead of, 'well I'm sorry that you're sensitive. I was just speaking and you took it too personally.'

#3 Includes an offer of reparation or restitution that fits the solution

When you're apologizing, there are three main steps: 

1. I'm sorry

2. This is what I did wrong. 

3. This is what I'll do to make up for it.

In the third step, ensure that there is something that you offer to make up for it. If at work, you lost your temper in one of your meetings and you're apologizing to your boss, an example of an apology could be: "I'm so sorry for losing my temper in today's meeting. I'll make sure to apologize to [the coworker you lost your temper on] and practice more positive communication to bring to our meetings'. 

#4 Does not overdo

Another element to focus on is to not overdo it in your apology and offer of reparation. If you’re apologizing and say something along the lines of “I’m so sorry. I’m such a terrible person, and I can’t believe I could hurt you. I’m never going to go to a work happy hour again because this is just something so unforgivable and awful.”

This is overdoing it. It turns the attention away from the person you’re apologizing to and leads the person into reassuring you after you’ve done something wrong.

#5 Doesn’t get caught up in who’s more to blame or who started it

If you’re learning how to apologize for being rude, don’t focus on if the other person started it. If your coworker has been rude to you consistently and you were retaliating, don’t bring this up in the apology. 

A proper apology for being rude could look something like this:

“I’m sorry that I was rude to you during our team lunch the other day. That comment was hurtful and I want to apologize for my actions. My intention moving forward is to be more mindful of my actions and how they can be perceived so this doesn’t happen again.”

#6 Requires that you do your best to avoid a repeat performance

Apologies can get really old when they happen again and again. When you do something wrong and apologize for it, think about the different ways you can ensure this doesn’t happen again. 

If you’ve over promised a client something and aren’t able to deliver, take the time to ask for help from a colleague and better understand how to communicate so that you’re less likely to make the same mistake. 

A communication strategy for responding to a client’s request is instead of promising ‘yes, we can absolutely do that by this date’ is ‘That sounds possible. Let me check with my team to determine if this is something we’re able to support and a realistic deadline this can be accomplished in. I’ll get back to you on this by the end of the week’.

#7 Should not serve to silence

Apologies aren’t meant to take away the pain of the person you did wrong to. They can still be upset, frustrated, mad, or angry, and the goal of an apology isn’t to silence the other person’s disappointment. 

When apologizing, understanding that this is to begin to make amends and they might still need time to process their emotions.

#8 Shouldn’t be offered to make you feel better if it risks making the hurt party feel worse

You shouldn’t make an apology if it’s just to make you feel better if it’s possible that it can make the other person feel worse. 

Take time to consider if an apology is the right move here and at the right time, or is this something to make me feel better?

This is less applicable to apologizing at work, as most work apologies should be given in a timely manner, but something you should consider.

#9 Does not ask the hurt party to do anything, not even to forgive

Apologies should not come with expectation. At work people are more likely to forgive as it’s important to keep the peace in an office environment. That doesn’t mean you should expect for them to do anything from the apology. 

There should be no expectation for them to forgive you, tell you it’s all okay, or to work together on an apology. 

It can be really challenging to have to apologize and is easy to ruminate on, so if you need to help to find presence, check out our article How to Stop Thinking About Work.

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