Damage control: How to apologise the right way

At some point during your work life, you will make a mistake, or say something you shouldn’t have. You will, in fact, make many over the course of your career. While not everybody has the misfortune of making career-destroying mistakes, slip-ups – and the way you handle them – will have an effect on your professional image.

It’s only human nature to try and shy away from confronting one’s own flaws and mistakes, which can lead to rifts in relationships. When it comes to business though, professionalism dictates that there is no place for timidity and the complications that can arise from an unwillingness to admit to one’s own faults. The workplace can be unforgiving, and so can customers; so if you’ve made a mistake, it’s time to make things right.

Mistakes aren't always the end of the world Mistakes aren't always the end of the world

What makes a good apology?

The important thing to remember is: You have to mean it. There’s not much point in an insincere apology, and the worst thing is that people will know and assume that you’re taking them for fools, which will only make matters worse.

Time is also of the essence when it comes to an apology – if you make a mistake, apologise as soon as you realise it. Don’t wait for 10 people to point it out to you before you start admitting to it. You'll look less sorry that you did it and more sorry that you got caught.

When apologising, state your mistake plainly and try speaking in the first person when getting your message across; for example, say “I’m sorry I didn’t manage to get the documents ready in time,” as opposed to “You didn’t give me the necessary information in time” or “He took a long time getting his part ready and it held up my work.”

Passing the buck makes it seem like you’re justifying yourself or even making excuses, whereas taking ownership of your mistake is definitely the more mature option and will make you seem more responsible.

Allow the other party time to be angry

Many times, people tend to pre-emptively apologise to get it out of the way, but that will come off as insincere. Acknowledge your mistake by allowing the people affected some time to get it out of their systems … even if it means you’ll be in the line of fire.

That said, there’s no harm in trying to cut short a verbal harangue: Try saying “I understand where you’re coming from, and I know you’re upset,” and follow it up with an action plan to fix the mistake.

Take action

Action plans are useful for temporarily stifling an angry flow of words; however, nothing shows sincerity and a guarantee that the mistake will never happen again like actual steps taken to reverse or fix the issue. If the issue in question is customer-related, then the company at fault should take immediate steps to:

• Rectify the problem; and

• Offer something in apology; it could be vouchers, a discount, or a sincere “We’re very sorry, and we appreciate your patronage.”

It is sometimes impossible to implement immediate change, especially when the issue stems from a third party or the weather, but if it’s within your control – customer service, your lack of time management, etc – it is very important that your client or your colleague is made aware that you will be changing things for the better, and soon.

Leaders often find that they have to shoulder the responsibility for their teams, and that doesn’t ring more true than when there has been a collective mistake. Even if the problem arose from the team, the blame will rest on the shoulders of the leader, so be prepared.

Lastly, if you’re unsure of how to proceed, it helps to confide in a friend or a trusted colleague. Be sure not to whitewash what you’ve done or the chances of getting accurate feedback will definitely decrease! Tell them what happened, and if necessary, practise your apology speech and run your action plan by them to get their opinions and feedback. Remember, it’s not about how hard you fall, it’s about how fast you can get back up!