Monday, 26 October 2015 16:25

How to Craft an Apology

Who hasn't said something in the heat of the moment that they regret? Everyone makes mistakes. We make insensitive statements, we speak before we think, and we let our emotions get the best of us.

No workplace is perfect. Managers berate subordinates in meetings. Colleagues make snide remarks about each other. Even worse, people send emails, texts, or tweets without giving sufficient consideration to how the messages will be received. This makes our insensitivities more public and all the more egregious.

Even seasoned executives aren't immune from foot-in-mouth disease. Tony Hayward, the former CEO of British Petroleum, famously complained that he “wanted his life back” in the midst of the 2010 oil spill. (He later apologised to the families of the workers who had died in the tragedy, as well as the thousands of people whose lives were totally disrupted.)

Former Harvard President and Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers had to apologise in 2005 for his contention that “innate differences” between men and women accounted for the under-representation of women in the sciences. Senior advertising executive Justine Sacco was fired for posting an insensitive and racist tweet about AIDS in Africa. And more recently, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella apologised for suggesting that women should not speak up about pay inequities.

Why Apologise?

Apologising can be difficult and embarrassing. Not apologising for one’s mistakes or for inflicting unnecessary hurt on someone else can be far worse for your ongoing relationships, effectiveness, career progression and team cohesion. An effective apology can open the channels of communication instead of allowing the relationship to fester and become unproductive and dysfunctional. Swallowing your pride and mustering the courage to apologise goes a long way to building the trust of your team and demonstrating that you are willing to take responsibility for your actions – as long as you also make a point of following through to repair your mistakes or the damage you’ve caused. (   

How Not to Apologise

Apologies can be tricky and can backfire even with the best of intentions. Without some forethought, an apology — public or private — is no guarantee you'll redeem yourself. Sometimes, people aren't ready to forgive.

More often than not, however, your apology fails because you apologise the wrong way. Here are some ways not to apologise:

·         "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to ----, I was only trying to ----."

·         "I wasn't implying that you ----, I only wanted to express my ----."

·         "I had a good reason for saying ----, please understand where I'm coming from."

·         “I apologise, but…”

·         “Mistakes were made…”

·         “I deeply regret…”

In other words, we make the apology all about ourselves or bypass responsibility by deferring to the third person. We justify, explain, re-direct and coat it with our own polish. Try the following process next time you need to craft an apology:

The Anatomy of an Effective Apology

1.Don't Justify

It’s not about you. When you mess up, people don't want to hear about you, your justifications and excuses. In order for them to forgive you, they want to know that you recognise how you offended them. Your rationalisations will only offend even further.

Use the first person and say something like “I apologise” or “I’m sorry”, naming your offending behaviour.  Offer no excuses.

2. Acknowledge Their Feelings and Values

Follow through by make your apology about how they have been affected by your mistake or your words and how they must be feeling.  Don’t assume you know how they feel.  If you're not sure what that is, ask and then listen to their answers. 

The people you've offended need you to acknowledge their perspective. Don't argue it. Let them know you hear them by affirming and encouraging them to talk about what is important to them.

When you listen to them talk about their feelings, you are opening the door to healing the damage done.

3. Restore Common Ground

When you make a mistake or say the wrong thing, you diminish trust in the relationship you have. You need to repair that by reminding them of your shared history, your shared goals. You reassure the other party that you want to continue to share commonalities with them and work together again.

4. Promise That it Won’t Happen Again

Your apology should include your intention to not let them down again. Invite them to hold you accountable to this promise.

5. Understand the Consequences

Fine tuning an apology depends on knowing how you've offended them and what reasonable actions will aid in repairing the relationship. Often a simple statement of empathy will go a long way to restoring trust. At other times some form of compensation is in order. Yet other circumstances an apology may have legal ramifications.

If you are unsure as to the consequences of your apology, seek advice from your boss, human resources or a legal adviser.


There are no hard rules as to how to deliver an apology — whether written, public, private, or otherwise. Each is unique in its own way. What is appropriate in one situation is not in another. Only you can tell how to phrase it, how to deliver it, and how to make it resonate with the other party.

An apology always requires you to offer an expression of empathy to the offended party. Without sincerely stating how your error has affected them, your apology becomes a hollow justification of yourself and your actions.

When crafting an apology, ask yourself, "Who am I talking to, and what are they looking for in my apology?" If you're not sure, then consult with a trusted peer or your coach.

Last modified on Monday, 26 October 2015 16:43

Active Tree Services: Vegetation Management

“We were looking to take our people strategy to a new level, breaking new ground and in a lot of ways challenging norms that organisations hold too...


Pacific Power: Energy

"Your leadership of the organisation wide change project was impressive, demonstrating great ability during a very difficult period and successfully...


Fiserv: Financial Services

"Thankyou for your contributions to our … project, HR strategy, change management program and communications. I have been personally enriched...


Director Europe Imports Pty. Ltd

“Di’s coaching has helped me to find a more solid concentration of priorities, closer scrutiny of the business, more confidence to make better...


Human Capital Magazine

“Author Di Worrall… has a knack for bringing broad concepts of social change and applying those concepts to the business world. Her excellent...