It’s a given in business: things go wrong. And what organizations, teams, and even individuals do when that happens speaks volumes about them. So what do YOU do when things go wrong? Hopefully, you do what professionals do—you fix the situation. But beyond that, how much do you communicate regret? How much do you apologize for what went wrong? And how much should you apologize? These are important and often overlooked questions.
Apologizing in business is a tricky thing. If you do it too much, you could come across as weak or ineffective. If you say I’m sorry reflexively, even for things that aren’t your responsibility, people can think of you as someone on whom they can pin the blame for anything. On the other hand, if you never apologize, even when you’re at fault, you can come across as arrogant or insensitive. Or worse, people could think you’re hiding serious insecurities behind an overly confident persona that never, ever allows you to admit wrongdoing.
So when should you apologize? And how should you do it? Well, the When and the How are up to you, but when you’re communicating about something gone wrong—whether or not you consider it an apology—you should:
- Explain facts
- Own your part
- Express empathy
Explaining is easy. ‘Owning it’ is less so.
Whether in or out of work, when we get news of something gone wrong that affects us, we usually want to know 2 things: What happened? And what’s being done about it? I find that most people are relatively comfortable addressing the facts around these questions. They can pretty easily communicate what went wrong, what they’re doing to fix it, and even how they’ll keep if from happening again. Great! You definitely want to provide facts around those questions.
People tend to feel a little less comfortable with the idea of taking ownership when things go wrong—mostly because of the potential consequences. A lot depends on the culture where you work: Do you see other people owning up to their mistakes, or do you see them avoid responsibility? Which behavior gets rewarded, and which gets punished? But if you’re not in a culture that punishes taking ownership when things go wrong, you should make every effort to communicate that you’re willing to “take the heat” for things that happen on your watch. Being perceived as the opposite can easily brand you as someone with less-than-impeccable integrity. If something you did (whether by error or omission) caused whatever went wrong, you should own it and, yes, you should apologize.
When addressing a situation that might warrant an apology, It’s not enough to focus on the questions of What happened? and Who caused it? because people don’t only want to understand; they also want to be understood. And you show that you understand through empathy.
Empathy: Not as difficult as it might seem
Some people think that expressing empathy is too ‘touchy feely’ for the workplace. Well, empathy isn’t about being ‘touchy feely’ or about overly emotional displays of sensitivity. It’s about helping people who are affected by whatever went wrong to feel understood—to feel heard, even.
Most of us understand that good customer service focuses on empathy as a way to help customers express negative emotions and feel heard. We’ve all heard a good customer service agent or an effective store manager say something like: I understand how frustrated you must be. Or: I can see how it looks from your side that we’re not treating you like a valued customer. And while most of us can see how empathy works in customer service, we don’t all see how the concept translates to working with colleagues and even with a boss. Well, it does! Think of the people you’re communicating with at work as your customers. If you value your relationship with them, you need to express understanding and concern about their situation.
But even people who acknowledge empathy as a good, useful thing—even in the workplace—might think to themselves: I know I should show more empathy, but it’s just not my personality. OK sure, some people are naturally more empathetic than others, but anyone who wants to show empathy can do it on some level. You just have to convey that you understand (or are trying to understand) how whatever happened affects the people you’re communicating with.
There’s not just one way to show empathy at work. You can communicate about feelings (e.g., I realize how frustrating this turn of events must be for you. I’m sorry!) You can also refer to facts or process in expressing empathy. (e.g., I understand that this miss on my team’s part sets your schedule back 2.5 weeks. I apologize for falling short.) And as I mentioned earlier, you can even show empathy for your boss (e.g., I’m sorry to bring you this news. I realize that it makes it harder for you to report what you hoped at next week’s Executive Team meeting.)
When bad things happen at work, as a professional, you’re likely ‘on top of it’ in terms of explaining what happened and what you’re doing about it. Ideally, you’re also standing up and owning whatever part you played in it. As you think about how you might more effectively connect with the people you work with, consider how you could show more empathy to help them know, when things go wrong, that you understand their situation and that you’re on their side.
Guillermo Villar is principal coach with Cambio Coaching. He helps high-achieving individuals and teams communicate with intention to get the business results they want. If you’re interested in working with Guillermo, sign up for a free meeting to explore how he can help.