Skip to main content


| December 13, 2016

by Jim Bruce

I grew up in a home where apologizing for my wrong actions, for example, taking and hiding my brother’s toys, was required.  All that it took to trigger the apology was a stern look from my Mother.  As I got older and didn’t have the prompt from my Mother, I want to believe that I either recognized my hurtful behaviors or responded to prompts from the people around me and apologized to the wronged party.  However, I know that I must have missed many opportunities when I should have apologized for wrongs both small and large and did not, either because I didn’t know how I’d been offensive, because I was too embarrassed, or because I didn’t create the opportunity. 
This election season has seen more questionable behavior – name-calling, deliberate misstatements of facts, hurtful behavior, etc. – than I’ve ever seen.  And, in most instances there was no recognition of the wrong and very rarely an apology.  This type of behavior, however, is not just seen in the political world.  If one is observant, you can see that it has come to permeate our behavior in general.  Too often we wrong another, perhaps recognize it or it’s called to our attention, and perhaps intend to apologize, or not, when we next see the individual, and then let it slip from our conscious mind only to be forgotten.  The result is hurt feelings, mistrust, and broken relationships in both our private and work lives.
This ought not to be the case.  Whether you argue the need to apologize for your “wrongs” on the basis of renewing or strengthening your personal and business relationships or on high moral principles, it is absolutely necessary in a civil, interdependent society.
With this as prelude, I want to turn to the topic of apologies for today’s Tuesday Reading.  Everyone of us has been “victimized” – e.g., your boss didn’t show for the meeting with you and your team to outline next year’s plan – or has “victimized” another – e.g., you forgot to tell your team that you wouldn’t be available next week for the final project review.  So, we all need to understand what an apology is, why it’s important, and how to, and how not to, deliver an effective one.
What?  ::  Apologies have three parts:  First, take responsibility, admit your mistake, and express regret.  Second, you ask for forgiveness and make restitution.  And, third, you promise to do better in the future and seek the individual’s feedback, if appropriate, to help you in doing this.
Why?  ::  Apologies are necessary to open a dialogue between you and the “victim” of your action who could be someone with whom you have a close relationship or a more distant one or no relationship at all.  It signifies your willingness to admit your mistake and helps the other individual deal with their feelings.  When you acknowledge your unacceptable behavior it begins the process of rebuilding the relationship and provides a platform for discussing how to go forward. 
Consequences of not apologizing  ::  If you don’t recognize your unacceptable behavior, others who become aware of it may see you in a different light and your relationships with them may also be damaged.  This, in turn, may harm your reputation, lower your effectiveness, and limit future opportunities.  And, in particular, it may limit your effectiveness within your team.  After all, no one wants to work with someone who doesn’t admit to his or her mistakes.
As in many situations, there are not-so-good and better ways to make apologies.  Andy Molinsky, Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, suggests four ineffective ways to make an apology:
1.  The empty apology:  “I’m sorry.  I said I’m sorry!”  You say the necessary words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” but there’s no substance and therefore no feeling.  You say the words knowing you need to apologize but either don’t know how or are so annoyed that you can’t put more into it.
2.  The excessive apology:  “I’m so sorry!  I feel so bad!  I’m so sorry.  Is there anything I can do about this?  I feel so really bad about this!”  Apologies are meant to rectify a wrong and rebuild a damaged relationship.  The excessive apology doesn’t do that, instead it draws attention to you and your feelings.
3.  The incomplete apology:  “I’m sorry that this happened.”  It’s a beginning but also misses the mark.  As noted earlier, apologies have three parts:  taking responsibility, asking for forgiveness and making restitution, and a commitment to do better in the future.
4.  The denial:  “This was not my fault.”  Here your ego gets control and you don’t apologize at all. 
All of these approaches focus more on you and not the “victim.”  And, as Heidi Grant Halvorson, Senior Scientist at the Neuroleadership Institute and Associate Director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University, notes, a real apology cannot be about you, your limitations, your thoughts, your feelings:
          I didn’t mean to …
          I was trying to …
          I didn’t realize …
          I had good reason …
Research by Steven Scher, Professor of Psychology, Eastern Illinois University, and John Darley, Warren Professor of Psychology, Princeton University, suggests a four-step process for making an apology:
1.  Express Remorse:  Your apology needs to start with either “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.”  These words express remorse, an emotional expression of personal regret felt by a person after they have committed an act, which they deem to be shameful, hurtful, or even violent.  The words need to be sincere and authentic, and not offered with any ulterior motive.  Example:  “I’m sorry that I did not include you on the agenda for yesterday’s meeting.  I’m embarrassed, especially given all the hard work you did to prepare.”
2.  Admit Responsibility:  Acknowledge what you did and take responsibility for your actions.  Empathize with the individual and demonstrate that you understand how the individual feels.  Don’t make assumptions;  put yourself in the other person’s place and imagine how they feel.  Example:  “I know that I hurt your feelings yesterday by not putting you on the agenda.  You expected to present at the meeting and had invited a number of your friends and colleagues.  Not being on the agenda must have been embarrassing to you.”
3.  Make Amends:  When you make amends, you goal is to make the situation right.  If it’s a spilt cup of coffee, making amends is simple;  buy another cup of coffee.  If it’s a cup of coffee spilled on a person’s coat, buy the coffee and pay for cleaning the coat.  If it’s being omitted from the presentations at today’s meeting, work with the individual to find an appropriate time that will work for all parties.  Be extremely careful to follow through on whatever is the appropriate way to make amends.  If you don’t, you will be thought of even worse.
4.  Commit to taking steps so that you won’t repeat the action or behavior.  The “victim” needs to see that you are actively working to change your behavior.  So, if what you are apologizing for is a repetitive behavior – like over-scheduling your day or regularly missing or being late for scheduled meetings – take steps to change that behavior.  And, even invite the individual to give you feedback on how you are doing.
Every one of us will likely need to make an apology “RSN” (real-soon-now).  This tool here works well for both those small mistakes as well as the larger ones we hopefully encounter less frequently.  Think about doing the work necessary for you to make it a practice that’s in your tool kit!  I believe that you’ll find doing this work will be very helpful.
Make it a great week as you look forward to the holidays.  .  .  .    jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
How to Apologize:  Asking for Forgiveness Gracefully, MindTools.
Steven J. Scher and John M. Darley, How Effective Are the Things People Say to Apologize?  Effects of the Realization of the Apology Speech Act, Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, January 1997.
Heidi Grant, The Most Effective Ways to Make it Right When You Screw Up, Harvard Business Review, June 2013.

Andy Molinsky, The 4 Types of Ineffective Apologies, November 2016.