The media are peppered with apologies from politicians, business people and celebrities. Even television journalism had one of its own stars caught in an apology-loop recently.
These apologies are usually incomplete hedges designed to preserve the speaker’s status while admitting enough to make the inquiry go away. It rarely works. Their nonapology just gets replayed the next time another famous person does the same.
There is much to be learned in the workplace from how the powerful and entitled mishandle these things.
At work, sincere apologies play an important role. They clear and prepare a productive relationship to grow again. Both managers and employees need to understand their power and place.
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Mistakes. When either a manager or employee makes a mistake which could harm trust and confidence, an apology can prevent further damage. Here, a mistake means a preventable lapse such as missing important facts or misreading intent. Errors made for the right reasons require adjustments, not apologies.
No excuses. Benjamin Franklin said: “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.” Excuses are the basic flaw in most failed workplace apologies. If the word “but” is in the same sentence with “I am sorry,” then it is unlikely you are truly sorry and your victim can tell. Too-clever-by-half explanations with an apology buried inside are not worth the oxygen. In fact, they insult the listener.
Went too far. Sometimes in the course of productive conflict, people go too far in their comments, word choices or tone. Pushing the envelope is one thing (and often good) but pushing it too far can damage trust. The sooner a simple but sincere apology can be made, the better. Good relationships get stronger after a well-intended brush with disaster if handled well. The same goes for angry (intended) outbursts, but the requirement for “no excuses” is even greater.
Unintended insults. Workplaces with a variety of cultures and backgrounds can mean a statement or behavior works well in one setting, but poorly in another. An apology with a sincere admission of ignorance or plain insensitivity is helpful. Four letter words might be used as adjectives where you were raised. When this pattern conflicts with local customs, an apology and a commitment to better future behavior can restore a productive relationship.
Counterproductive apologies. Apologies are not right for every situation. Tough conversations might offend an employee but are aimed at changing problem behaviors. “Sorry to have to tell you this” blunts the message. Overuse of “I’m sorry” is seen for what it is: insincere or passive blather that means nothing. Apologizing is not a communications or management strategy, it is an occasional tool to prevent further damage from a poorly handled situation.
If soft skills differentiate an average employee or manager from a great one, then the ability to recover from a soft skills train wreck is key. Think of the times you gave or received a sincere apology in your personal life. They have the same effect at work.
Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit www.capital.org.