How to Apologize in Business

Apology in BusinessWhen I think about learning to apologize, I think about my parents bringing my attention to someone I’d wronged in some way and reminding me to say I was sorry as they stood watching. It seems such a simple thing: to acknowledge that we have (perhaps inadvertently) wronged someone.  We all want to instill that in our children: that if they knock someone’s painting, or break someone’s toy, or hurt someone’s feelings, they should say they are sorry.  Somehow this simple exchange is too frequently lost in business.


We all know that building relationships is important, and that apology smoothes over places where we may have taxed that relationship.  But we are generally slow to apologize in business because we do not want to open ourselves to criticism that we have done something wrong, or that we are to blame for something that may come back to hurt us down the line.  This self-protective stance is actually far more damaging to relationship.

We also are not very good at apologizing.  We often leave out one or more critical components that make apology a powerful statement.  Here are the elements of a productive apology:

  1. Take responsibility for the wrongdoing.  Seems simple, right, that an apology should include saying what you did that hurt someone else, but many of us leave out this component.  “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry you heard it that way” is NOT owning the wrongdoing.  Now, if you don’t think you did anything to hurt someone else, you can still apologize for their experience.  “Wow, that must have really hurt to think that I called you incompetent behind your back.  I can see why you’d be upset.  I’m so sorry that that happened; that would be really hurtful.”
  2. Actually apologize.  Talking around the issue isn’t the same as someone hearing the words “I apologize” or “I’m sorry”.
  3. A sense of contrition.  An apology without the feeling behind it is simply empty words.  The gesture doesn’t count if the person to whom you’re apologizing doesn’t sense that you actually ARE sorry.  Look the person in the eye, take your time with it, say it more than once.  A casual offhanded apology may be OK for brushing up against someone in an elevator, but not for accidentally deleting weeks of their work.
  4. Acknowledge their experience of the event and the impact your actions had. A If you can recognize how things occurred for them (whether or not you think they “should” feel that way) they will get that you understand their world.  Saying more about them than you is always a good bet, as in “I apologize that I was late getting my portion of the report to you.  I’m sure that caused you added stress and made you go out of your way to remind me several times about it.  It’s not your responsibility to babysit me and I imagine that’s frustrating when everyone else had their portions in on time.”  Stating things from their point of view establishes that you understand things from their perspective; a powerful bonding element.
  5. Listen.  Often people will have something to say about whatever the incident is.  While some may accept your apology right away, “That’s OK.  Thanks for the apology,” it may take some a little longer.  They may need to explain how your actions impacted them.  If they do, the best thing you can do is LISTEN without reacting or defending.  It probably means you didn’t sufficiently acknowledge their experience (#4).  When they are finished, echo back what they say about their experience to show you understand.  “I didn’t realize my tardiness meant you had to miss your child’s soccer game.  It sounds like that was disappointing and frustrating for you.  I’m so sorry.”
  6. Make a promise: let them know what they can count on you for moving forward.  Saying you’re sorry about this time something happened doesn’t leave them knowing how it will go next time unless you make a promise.  Give them an idea of how you will act moving forward; but only promise what you will hold yourself to: if you can’t follow through, don’t promise it.  “I’m really working on being more reliable to get things to people on time.  I don’t want to inconvenience people in this way anymore, so please know I’m working on it.  I’m putting more reminders in my calendar so that it won’t happen again.  I don’t want to put more on your plate to ask you to remind me about things I owe you, but I will tell you that I won’t take any offense if you shoot me some reminders.  I’m committed to getting things to you on time.”

Offering powerful apologies shows our humanity.  It shows we understand our impact on others.  It shows we are authentic leaders, willing to acknowledge our errors as well and our strengths.

Apologizing builds trust, the foundation for any relationship or effective partnership.