How to Say “Sorry” at Work — and Mean It

If you have ever had to say, “I’m sorry” to someone at work – for “dropping the ball,” missing a deadline, or saying the wrong thing, you know how awkward and difficult it can be. Apologizing to friends and family is hard enough; telling a coworker, staff member or boss “I’m sorry” can be downright nerve wrecking. However, asking another person for forgiveness provides an opportunity to earn their trust and respect, because a sincere apology communicates three important things:

  1. I’M HUMBLE – I make mistakes, so I can forgive your mistakes too.
  2. I’M HONEST AND TRUSTWORTHY – I admit my mistakes when I make them without excuse, and without blaming you.
  3. I WANT TO GROW AND CHANGE – I regret my actions, and I’ll strive to be a better person, employee, and/or leader.

In the past, I began my apologies by asking the other person if they “had a minute.” After they (hopefully) said yes, I chose a private place where we could meet without interruption, sat down, cleared my throat (so far so good…) and began:

“I am sorry, IF I hurt you…”

Oh no! I just stumbled over a big IF.”

I tried again.

“I am sorry, BUT I didn’t mean to upset you…”

Uh-oh. Even though I thought I was apologizing, I was not. What was in the way?


So Why No IFs or BUTS?

In his book, The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey describes apologies as “Righting Wrongs”:

“When wrongs happen and you quickly acknowledge them and apologize, in most cases, you’re able to move on. What damages credibility and trust the most is once something has gone wrong, people don’t acknowledge it or apologize…”

A sincere apology must communicate full acknowledgement of and responsibility for a mistake. The words IF and BUT render an apology worthless, because they transfer responsibility from the “perpetrator” to the “victim.”

I’m sorry IF I hurt your feelings.

I’m sorry IF you saw it that way.

I’m sorry IF you didn’t have all the information.

I’m sorry IF you thought I should have said or done it differently

I’m sorry, BUT you shouldn’t have taken it that way.

I’m sorry, BUT you should have known better than to approach me like that.I’m sorry, BUT you made me mad.

An apology that contains the word IF communicates “I am not sure whether I caused you pain or let you down, and I am only sorry IF I did in fact hurt or disappoint you.” “I am sorry that I said or did XYZ,” means something very different from “I am sorry if I said or did XYZ.” If you genuinely do not know whether you hurt, disappointed, or offended someone, ask him or her – they will usually tell you. Then you will know with certainty whether an apology is called for and why, and you won’t need the IF.

An apology that contains the word BUT is no better – it suggests that the other person should have responded differently, or that you are justifying or excusing your actions. “I am sorry for what I did,” means something very different from “I am sorry for how you reacted or felt” or “I am sorry, but this is just the way that I am.” (Justification!)

Apologies That Work: Goodbye IF and BUT!

Hello AND!

An apology that contains the word AND is very powerful because it tells the other person that you are more than just sorry – you want to make amends, set the record straight, and make sure the mistake never happens again. It lets the other person know that you respect and value them as a person and as a member of your team, and that you want to build and maintain a positive relationship with them.

I am sorry for XYZ AND I want us to be able to work with each other, so I hope we can put this behind us.

I apologize. It was my fault, AND I know I hurt you. I will choose my words more carefully next time.I am sorry that I said or did XYZ, AND I will make it right by…

I am sorry, AND from now on, I am going to do or say things differently.

Apologizing isn’t easy, but it is the right thing to do even if our mistake was unintentional. Our apologies tell others “I am humble, honest, self-aware, and I want to grow” – as long as we keep the “IFs” and “BUTs” out and the “ANDs” in. Of course, we must also make good on our “ANDs”; apologies ring hollow if we repeat

same negative behavior, or if we promise to follow up but don’t. Sincere apologies cultivate an atmosphere of trust, humility, and courtesy in the workplace and keep relationships, teams, and organizations healthy.

Check out this great blog by Lucy Stratton, to see how the word “but” can destroy more than just an apology.

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Hope Horner is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Patricia D Jones

This is a wonderfully written article with great real life examples. I will definitely be sharing this with my Diversity Team Members, co-workers, friends, and family. Thank you for this blog!