Published on August 27, 2012

Japanese Prime Minister Kan Naoto apologizing to the people of South Korea

Recent events in the news have reminded me of the vexing nature of apologies.  Each of us has seen public apologies in the media:  Jimmy Swaggert apologizing to his congregation, Representative Kevin Yoder apologizing for skinny dipping in the Sea of Galilee, Prime Minister Kan Naoto’s apology to Korea for the actions of imperial Japan.  And I’m sure all of us have had to apologize to a partner, a parent, a child, even to the family dog (I’m sorry I yelled at you, Fluffy).

Apologies have their place at work as well, but that is where the vexation begins.  Our professional identities at work may emphasize strength, focus, and competence.  Apologizing after making a mistake (yes, we all make them) requires maintaining a professional identity while still allowing for the possibility of making a meaningful apology, one that satisfies the offended party, whether that person is a client, a co-worker, or a manager.

It seems clear that an apology is a specific communication form, like a request for proposals, a trip report, or a project change order.  Unlike these other forms, however, it demands more of ourselves, contains an emotional component potentially, and risks setting up unrealistic expectations.  You don’t really want to be the office apologist, called on each time a project doesn’t meet a deadline.

Despite these risks, I believe crafting a sincere, timely apology is a powerful communication form that can mark you as an effective communicator.  I urge you to consider an apology as a task that requires as much consideration and crafting as any other communication task you take on.  The most important thing is to apologize without a “but.”  If you qualify the apology with, “…but you made the first mistake by expecting us to complete your project on an unrealistic schedule,” or “…but I wasn’t the one who decided to subcontract the documentation to the lowest bidder,” then you have discounted your apology.

If you need more inspiration for your apology, then listen to Brenda Lee singing “I’m Sorry,” the number one hit in August 1960.  She was 15 when she released it, and she has nothing to be sorry for!