Career Advice

When to apologize and when not to

I recently got a question in email from a woman (who is early in her career) which I answered, but then as a few weeks passed, I began to think about all the times I wish my coworkers had apologized and when they did it too much.

The question was:

“Should I apologize when I make a mistake at work, and if so, how? If not, what should I do instead? I notice I am apologizing for mistakes that are mostly my responsibility, but not only, and that nobody else is apologizing.”

The hard thing about apology is some people do it, and some don’t. Some are comfortable making mistakes and being imperfect, others are not. But done thoughtfully apology is a powerful way to build trust.

So first – why not to apologize unless absolutely necessary

– Some men (and some women, although fewer) see it as a sign of weakness and will use it against you, bringing up your ownership of a mistake to weaken you in the future. Be conscious of when, where and to whom you apologize.

– If you are trying to manipulate or being insincere to achieve some other end then you will erode trust because most people can tell when you are insincere.

– If you are not the one who made the mistake. Again, not dealing in the truth erodes trust, even if you are trying to show you will own problems. Don’t throw someone else under the bus, but don’t step in and apologize if it is not your mistake because it may also be used to undermine you in the future as someone who can themselves be thrown under the bus.

The bottom line is mistakes are a normal part of learning. If you make a mistake admit it, see if you need to fix it, and move on. Don’t apologize unless someone else is hurt by your mistake. Don’t apologize unnecessarily, or profusely.

But then again, why apology is powerful

– Owning your mistakes openly builds trust, so if you have hurt or inconvenienced someone then take the time to apologize and try to do it one-on-one so you can be sincere and open.

– It takes courage to apologize which is why so many people don’t. You make yourself vulnerable when you do, but being strong enough to admit your imperfections (within reason) will make you a more compelling leader. Being authentic is a very powerful way to lead.

– The people who can’t admit their mistakes have a huge issue building trust as leaders. Too many times I have heard the comment “well s/he can’t admit when s/he’s wrong so s/he’ll make it someone else’s problem.”

These examples are all internal, but the one area where you need to be courageous and ready to take ownership is with customers. Your customers often need to hear from someone senior that you recognize a mistake has been made and you are going to fix it or make sure it gets fixed. If you are the senior person in the room and your company has made an error or let a customer down then own it, whether or not you are directly responsible.

In the end it is important to be thoughtful about how and when you apologize so your apology is both authentic and appropriate for your level of ownership of the issue. And make sure you do apologize when you own a problem and you don’t become one of those people who can never admit their mistakes.