In his ‘Essay on Criticism’, Alexander Pope assured us ‘to err is human’. Mastering the art of apologising, therefore, became an essential life skill. Whatever your position on the social and corporate ladders, there will inevitably be times when you will have to say you’re sorry (but not necessarily admit you’re wrong). The ability to apologise is an admirable trait: it takes a ‘big’ person to say they’re sorry, which can be a powerful management technique. Here’s how you can master this art…

Blot out your mistakes.

1. Recognise the two types of apology.

The most common form of apology is an admission that you’re wrong – just as Pope’s famous line suggests. A second type, however, is an apology for your actions – such as when laying down the law to a staff member who submits a report several days late. In doing so you point out that any repetition will lead to a severe reprimand. You not only apply pressure to improve the staff member’s performance but also, in apologising, you defuse the employee’s possible anger at what might be perceived initially as your bullying.

2. Forget ego and admit you’ve erred.

If a disagreement between two people is to end, one of them needs to ‘carry the can’, accept responsibility, and apologise. From a management perspective, it really makes little difference who is right and who is wrong. Your apology will be seen as a strength: logic, rather than emotion, is used to deal with a potentially difficult situation. In addition, your admission and apology will help to establish a ‘standard’ by which people acknowledge their mistakes, learn from the experience, and focus on issues important for achieving objectives.

3. Adhere to the rules of apologising.

Despite your best intentions to offer a sincere and meaningful apology, a great deal of its effect can be lost if you ignore any, or all, of these rules:

  • Don’t wait to be asked to apologise. Sometimes you won’t know you’ve made a mistake. Then, when the error is drawn to your attention, apologise with grace. More often, however, you’ll know you’ve erred. It’s galling if people come to you and ask for an apology.
  • Make your apology unconditional. ‘I’m sorry, but…’ – it’s what comes after the ‘but’ that people will remember most. Indeed, ‘but’ is a signal that your apology is shallow.
  • Apologise as soon as possible after the event. Don’t delay – or apologising will get harder.
  • Make your apology meaningful. Be clear why you’re apologising – for example: ‘I’m really sorry for rescheduling the staff meeting without asking you. I’ll make sure I don’t do it again.’
  • Apologise once and leave it at that. Don’t keep repeating your apology.

4. Let them have their say before apologising.

People who are feeling aggrieved will become even more upset if you don’t give them a chance to express their concerns or anger. Any apology from you before they have finished is likely to be seen as an attempt by you to get off the hook. Listen to what they have to say. Acknowledge their anger – then apologise and tell them what you are going to do to ensure that the cause of their concern is not repeated.

5. Sharpen the skill.

Apologising effectively is a skill; like any other skill, it can be learnt. If you’re the boss, you will find that this skill will help to inspire extraordinary efforts among your staff. Your actions will demonstrate what staff know – that the ‘buck stops with you’. An apology can be a powerful management tool: only honest, straightforward people prepared to acknowledge their mistakes and correct them are big enough to say they’re sorry.

If you have to apologise to your boss, explain what happened and accept responsibility. Be prepared, however. Your boss will probably want to know what you’ve done to rectify the situation and to ensure that the mistake is not repeated. Indeed, your skilful handling of this situation could even further enhance your position in the organisation.

6. Avoid cover-ups.

Psychologists tell us response is meaning – that is, people’s responses demonstrate the meaning they attach to the message conveyed. Even though you might not have considered your actions offensive, the recipient might have done so – in which case an apology is required. Trying to back out of apologising or any attempt to cover up will only act against you in the long run. Apologise. Acknowledge your error. Ask how you can rectify any misunderstanding caused. Focus on strengthening the relationship.

No foul-up is worse than the mess you can get into by trying to cover up. Remember Nixon and Watergate, Clinton and Lewinsky? If you’ve dropped the ball, admit it – and apologise

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