Sorry, Boss — But Your Apology Stinks

bad dog made a mess in the kitchen

It should be simple. But there are many ways to screw up a perfectly good apology. There is the over-apology — as if saying “I’m really, really sorry” carries more weight. There is the knee-jerk, insincere “sorry!” that does not ring true. Perhaps the worst is the non-apology, which begins “I’m sorry, but….” and ends with a finger pointing at someone else.

Public figures — politicians and business leaders — are especially adept at this. We see these kinds of apologies in the news all the time. But misguided contrition is better than none at all. Right?

I do not think so. The issue is that when a person issues a perfunctory apology, they rarely own the fact that they were wrong. You end up with a sorry excuse for a “sorry” — something like what I described above — delivered with minimum effort. Bad medicine.

We all screw up sometimes. It is part of working on challenging tasks and working closely with other people. If you care about the work, you will inevitably butt heads, make a wrong move, or offend a colleague. And in those cases, I think we should apologize for our goofs, gaffes, and mistakes — especially if you value your relationships.

If you are in a leadership role or act as mentor to others, it is up to you to set the example and take your actions seriously.

Putting the feelings of others above your own is not easy. And I am not suggesting that you grovel or lose your sense of dignity in the process. You want to react appropriately to the offense — not to go overboard.

So the next time you need to apologize, try the following:

Consider your actions
Spend time thinking about what happened and how your actions affected others. Did you hurt someone’s feelings or reputation? Waste time or money? Break trust? Taking time to understand exactly how you caused the other person pain will help you deliver an apology that is thoughtful and genuine.  

Say “I am sorry”
It seems obvious, but this is where many apologies go wrong. The instinct to avoid situations that will be painful or embarrassing is only natural. But it is important to actually say sorry. A face-to-face apology is best, but if that is not possible, make sure your apology comes from your heart.

Be specific
When you do apologize, explain exactly what you did. Do not gloss over the details. For example, you could say, “I am sorry I snapped at you during the product team meeting. I was in a rotten mood and I took out my frustration on you. It was unfair and I wish I had not done it.”

Express empathy
You do not want to draw out the conflict indefinitely, but you should acknowledge the ways that you caused the other person pain. In the example above, you might say, “I realize that my reaction caught you off guard. I know that I would not want to be chided in front of the team.”

Request forgiveness
Ask to be forgiven. In the example we are using, the other person may be ready to accept the apology and move on. But if you did something more egregious, they may need to work through their emotions. Acknowledge that you are asking for forgiveness but make it clear you do not expect an immediate reply. This will give them time and space to think.

Sure, a contrite apology can be humbling for the person saying sorry. But that is alright. In fact, that is the point.

So the next time you find yourself in the wrong, try to avoid the knee-jerk apology. Take the act of apologizing seriously — offer a heartfelt message. You will grow and others will learn from your example.  

Why do you think people have a hard time apologizing?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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