The Art of Apology: Saying Sorry at Work

The Art of Apology

Mistakes are a natural and important part of life. It’s unlikely that any of us make it through a day without making at least a few, but that’s a good thing because it means we’re always being presented with opportunities to learn.

Opportunities for self-improvement aren’t limited to our lives at home, they extend into every facet of our lives, including work. When this happens, we can be grateful to discover and master the art of the apology. This article is here to help.

Types of Apologies in Corporate Settings

In the workplace, public mistakes require public apologies and private mistakes may require both private and public apologies. The following are a few types of errors in corporate settings that need different kinds of apologies:

·  Personal: A person-to-person apology by one person who has wronged another. This might extend to a group of people at work, such as an error that affects a team.

·  Public: An apology to a large group for a large-scale mistake. Social media faux pas often require a public apology because so many people see the error. 

·  Third Party: An apology on behalf of another person. This is generally a public apology by leadership for a wrongful act by an individual employee.  

Here’s an example. A well-known social media influencer for a company was called out by the public regarding a quote she used online. The famous author of the quote did not receive attribution. Instead of simply stating an apology and accepting full ownership, the influencer chose to place the blame on her social media team. This non-apology didn’t reflect well on the influencer’s character and her reputation and that of her company suffered.

Mistakes will be made in life and in business. Authentic, sincere apologies that come from individuals who are willing to accept full ownership of their mistakes are powerful. Full stop.

“Apologies require taking full responsibility. No half-truths, no partial admissions, no rationalizations, no finger pointing, and no justifications.” –Cathy Burnham Martin

How to Apologize

Apologizing is a “soft skill,” one of many people skills that companies often look for in prospective employees. Soft skills, which can also be described as emotional intelligence or relationship skills, are often landing higher on the list of desirable traits than even the technical skills required to do the job. And since making mistakes at work is going to happen, people who can offer up an authentic apology are an asset to any team.

Authentic apologies are like a healing balm. They have the potential to bring people together, build trust, and help relationships grow and flourish. The late American educator, Randy Pausch likened an apology to an antibiotic in the following quote:

“Half-hearted or insincere apologies are often worse than not apologizing at all because recipients find them insulting. If you’ve done something wrong in your dealings with another person, it’s as if there’s an infection in your relationship. A good apology is like an antibiotic; a bad apology is like rubbing salt in the wound.”

Pausch indicated there are some important things to consider when you want to do an apology right. Here are some things you should know:


·  Keep your apology brief. 

·  Be respectful, sincere, and professional

·  Make eye-contact

·  Apologize face-to-face if possible. Second best is a phone call. 

·  An apology note or letter can support a person-to-person apology.

·  Be humble, admit your mistake.

·  Recognize that a sincere apology will reflect positively on your character.

·  Remember, not apologizing will only make the situation worse.

·  Embrace the awkward. Apologizing is uncomfortable. Muster up the courage to go for it anyway.   


·  Don’t procrastinate your apology. “When you realize you’ve made a mistake, make amends immediately. It’s easier to eat crow while it’s still warm.” –Dan Heist

·  Don’t give a non-apology apology. This kind of apology may sound like, “I’m sorry you’re angry.” It averts ownership and can amplify any existing negative feelings of the apology recipient.

·  Don’t apologize in unnecessary ways. Constant apologizing for little things that aren’t really mistakes doesn’t benefit anyone. Effective apologies set right the kinds of actions that negatively impacted others in a real way.

·  Don’t focus on the “why” when you give your apology. Whoever you’ve wronged isn’t likely to be as interested in why it happened as they are about your interest in the resolution. Addressing the “why” might come across as rationalizing and can compromise the sincerity of your apology.

“Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”  –Benjamin Franklin

To some individuals, offering an apology can feel like weakness but being able to follow through reveals personal strength and humility, especially for those in leadership positions who are setting a professional example for other employees. A common saying regarding apologies: It’s not as much about who is right and who is wrong, it’s about how much you value the relationship (more than your ego).

Anatomy of an Apology

So, what are the essential parts of an apology? There are three, and an authentic apology needs each one:

1. Say you’re sorry. This can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake,” or “I shouldn’t have done that.”

2. Take ownership. This is when you say, “I take responsibility for __________.” You can objectively describe what happened according to your understanding but remember to keep it brief. Never shift the blame to someone else.

3. Make it right. You can say what you’re doing to fix the situation. A great way to indicate your sincerity is to share what you’ve learned from the experience. “I learned that when I __________, __________ happens. I’m going to __________ in the future to make sure it doesn’t happen again.” Then, follow through on your word. 

Writing an Apology Note

Apologizing in person is most effective. But sometimes a note can add extra meaning to that conversation. To write an apology, follow the same principles as what you say out loud. An apology note has these attributes:

1. Be personal. You can show respect and give weight to your apology by addressing someone directly. “Dear ____” is more meaningful than just jumping in. If you’ve apologized to a group in person, a note can be directed to an affected individual.

2. Own your action. “I’m sorry for ___________.” Being specific helps. For example, “I wasn’t focused on my assignment and I dropped the ball” or “I spoke out of turn and said things I shouldn’t have.”

3. Recognize the impact. Show you’re aware it’s not all about you. For example, “I realize my mistake delayed the project” or “I put the team in a bad spot in front of the client.”

4. Make it right. You can’t always undo an action, but you can show how to go forward in a positive way. Again, be specific, such as: “I have already started on next month’s proposal for early delivery” or “I have apologized to Mr. Smith as well.”

At Spoonful of Comfort, we have seen people use gifts as part of their apology. This can be a lovely gesture when the situation is right. Be cautious that your apology doesn’t feel like you’re trying to buy someone’s forgiveness or make yourself look good.

Emotional Ingredients of an Apology

The best apologies come from those who can effectively put themselves in the other person’s shoes. Sincerity is vital and can be achieved when you consider the problem from the perspective of everyone involved. By answering the following questions, you’ll be in the right head space and heart space to offer a good apology:

·  How would I feel and respond if this happened to me?

·  If this happened to me, what would need to happen to make it right?

Tapping into the emotionality and embracing the discomfort of offering an apology is worth the effort. Will you have to get vulnerable? Yes. But doing so can be rewarding and can help develop respect in the workplace. It also makes it clear that you have a growth mindset and that you’re unwilling to let your mistakes thwart the growth of the company, individuals, or yourself. 

At Spoonful of Comfort, we appreciate the opportunity we have to offer helpful information designed to strengthen relationships between people inside and outside of the workplace. We’re a company built on a foundation of empathy and compassion and seek opportunities to help people connect in meaningful ways. Thank you for subscribing to our corporate newsletter. We hope you have found this month’s information on apologies valuable for your organization.

Until next month, cheers!

Your friends at Spoonful of Comfort