Monday, April 12, 2021

When to Apologize

Actions to take: Give meaningful apologies any time you have done something you regret that negatively impacted another person. Do not base your decision on anything else. Do not base your decision to apologize on your feeling that the other party should apologize.

When should you apologize to someone at work? The answer: far more often than we do. 

You are bound to run into emotions, tempers, and hurt feelings at least occasionally at work, unless your relationships with your coworkers are completely superficial (and if that's the case, you're not following the advice from this blog). It is especially easy to hit raw nerves when you are a manager, since part of your job is to resolve issues and provide feedback about shortcomings.

I once had an employee come to my office completely livid about a decision I made. Our team had been doing something locally that was really the responsibility of a central department, and I put a stop to it. This employee felt that my decision was incorrect. For about fifteen minutes, they berated me at various volumes and various tones of voice. For most of that time, I attempted to address their concerns and explain my decision. At some point, I lost my cool. I was about five sentences into explaining that they didn't have a damn clue what they were talking about before I caught myself. I finished my thought and sent them out of my office before any more damage could be done. 

When something like this happens, you need to know how to get past it and maintain your relationship with that person. A smart first step is an apology. The criteria for deciding if you should apologize is simple:

  1. You have done something you regret
  2. That thing negatively impacted another person

Any time both criteria are true, apologize. Your decision to apologize is completely independent of the other person's decision. "Who should apologize" is the wrong thinking. It is not a contest.

The fact that the other person has done more wrong (in your opinion) is irrelevant. Apologies are not team decisions. The feeling of regret is personal and internal. Therefore, you don't get to decide when the other person should apologize, and they don't get to decide when you should apologize. To get out of the wrong mindset, I tell myself, "If you are even 5% at fault for what happened, you owe someone an apology." In the anecdote above, the employee quite literally did 95% of the shouting. It doesn't matter. I still failed to handle it as well as I should have.

Many people see an apology as giving in. They think that admitting your mistakes during the conflict means that you've accepted blame for the entire conflict. That is incorrect. It is the same wrong thinking as the "who should apologize" mentality. 

In fact, an apology is a powerful thing, in two senses. First, it is difficult to apologize. It requires strength of character to give a genuine apology for the things you regret. People who are confident and certain of themselves have an easier time apologizing, largely because they are not caught up in thinking about how others will interpret it.

Second, an apology is powerful because it puts you more in control of the situation. After conflict, both of you are burdened with many frustrations. Your regrets about how you acted are one of those burdens, whether you admit it or not. A genuine, meaningful apology will free you of that burden.

Average managers hide after conflict, metaphorically and, on occasion, literally. Some will cold-shoulder the issue until enough time has passed that they can pretend it didn't happen. Others use their authority to force the other party into accepting blame for the incident. Better bosses know that those strategies are both immature and ineffective. They address the issue head-on, and they start by admitting their faults with meaningful apologies.

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