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How Leaders Can Apologize Simply and with Sincerity at Work

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I often joke that we receive more training and instruction when it comes to learning to drive a car than we do in learning how to show up in conversations more intentionally and thoughtfully.  

And yet, as leaders, if we want to build these workplace cultures where people can feel safe, take risks, and bring their whole selves to work, then we need to be equipped and prepared to have more powerful conversations – and be able to apologize simply, effectively, and with sincerity. 

Trust and psychological safety at work is built one moment at a time, one conversation at a time, and one apology at a time. 

The core of our work is discovering how to build these workplaces for humans. And one of the ways to do that is by equipping teams with the tools to build better relationships through conversation 

Apologies are one of the most powerful ways people can bond and build trust with one another. It provides a foundation for reassurance that when (and it is when, not if) regrettable events occur, we’ll be able to navigate them together. Even the best relationships experience times that warrant an apology, and they will happen when we least expect them because we’re humans. 

Knowing how to apologize and take ownership of your impact is a powerful practice and we’ve broken down apologizing into its core components. 

1. Name the situation. 

The very first thing you should do when you apologize is verbalizing that you know what you did was harmful. You need to be clear and explicit with the recipient. 

Let’s visit what this can look like with two sample apologies. The bolded words are the portion where the situation is named. 
Not Helpful: “Hey, I know I snapped at you yesterday and I want to apologize. I was having a really awful day and that meeting pushed me over the edge. “ 

Helpful: “Hey, I want to apologize to you for snapping yesterday. That’s not how I want to show up, but it was how I showed up in that meeting. I want to apologize for the impact that had on you and that I shut you down in that way.” 

Both apologies name the situation but in two very different ways. The ‘Not Helpful’ apology acknowledged the situation in an almost dismissive way, while the ‘Helpful’ apology provides a direct, objective acknowledgment of the situation at hand. 

2. Own the impact.  

Apologizing and taking ownership of your impact on others is a practice that I consistently see people struggle with in this work.  

Many people can get to a point of taking ownership internally, where they can think about and realize they have overstepped, and understand their impact was different than they intended. But they might not ever take the step of saying that out loud to the person they may have harmed.  

And verbalizing and owning your impact? That is the part of apologizing that is key. 

About a month ago, I received an email from a leader in his organization who had attended my workshop on Intention vs. Impact. The email detailed a situation in his workplace where he showed up in a more reactionary way than he would have preferred to. He further shared that following that situation, he spent time wondering it even made sense for him to apologize 

It was only after hearing about the importance of owning one’s Impact on others that things clicked into place for him and he knew an apology to his team was simply the right thing to do. 

I share this email with you because it is a perfectly beautiful example of what it can look like to take full ownership of your impact and to apologize for how you affected others without an explanation of his intent. 

Revisiting our two sample apologies from above. The bolded words are the portion where the impact is named and owned. 
Not Helpful: “Hey, I know I snapped at you yesterday and I want to apologize. I was having a really awful day and that meeting pushed me over the edge.

Helpful: “Hey, I want to apologize to you for snapping yesterday. That’s not how I want to show up, but it was how I showed up in that meeting. I want to apologize for the impact that had on you and that I shut you down in that way. 

Quite obviously, the ‘Not Helpful’ apology has no acknowledgment of the harm done. Instead, the apology closes by asking the recipient of harm to provide grace and forgiveness to the apologizer. The ‘Helpful’ apology not only apologizes that your actions had an impact on the other person but goes a step further to acknowledge the way you may have changed that person’s behavior in the moment. 

3. Leave intention out. 

There’s lots of reason of why apologies are hard.  

Apologies in their purest form should be simple, short, and sweet – but we often want to expand on them to make us feel better, not necessarily to improve the situation we find ourselves in. Understanding the factors that led to why you caused harm to another is an important practice for you, not the recipient. 

The most significant and difficult habit to overcome, is we often look at ourselves through the lens of ‘Intention.’ And when we ask the recipient of a regrettable event to assume good intentions, what we are truly often are saying is you aren’t safe here. Insights from TheBias.com shows a culture of centering the aggressor’s intent only further marginalizes victims and creates a culture of blamelessness for those who cause harm. 

And I want to be clear: It’s not that intentions don’t matter, because they do in situations where someone said or did something that came from a malicious place. When you become aware of it, that can direct how you handle your response to an apology. And yes, there are situations where the ownership falls on the side of the recipient to get curious about why you showed up the way you did, but… 

What I want to make very clear is this: Good intentions don’t absolve you from negative impact. 

Our messages are ultimately interpreted and created by the receiver. And there are times where we will not be able to control or understand the lens through which they receive our apology. Their lens also does not absolve you from negative impact. 

It can be as simple as naively saying something unintentionally harmful to, say, an underrepresented group. When you are called in on your impact from a naïve statement, you have two choices:  

  1. Center your apology around your lack of knowledge “I’m sorry that I said _____. You have to understand that I didn’t know ____, so that’s why I said it.”; or,
  2. Respond in earnest and say “Thank you for calling me in and thank you for sharing that with me. I’m sorry that my words caused harm, I didn’t understand the impact of what I was saying, but I understand it now and am committed to doing better.” 

As humans, we also regularly experience a beautiful sense of cognitive dissonance that sometimes creates a barrier to recognizing the times where we show up in less than desirable ways. 

There will always be moments when we’re stressed, or triggered, or hurt and we may act in a malicious or aggressive manner unconsciously (or consciously). 

And we must be honest with ourselves and honor that we are not at our best when we are experiencing stress. Whether it’s external factors (like, say, a pandemic) or internal factors (health issues or fear/anxiety, etc), we know we’re more likely to be reactive and responsive to others under times of stress.  

In these situations, as you examine your intention behind harm, please understand it’s not a question of whether you’re a good person or not, it’s simply that you’re human. And as a human, are you able to notice and own when you aren’t showing up at your best? Those are the reflections you need to weave into your regular self-awareness practice. 

4. Commit to showing up differently. 

People with high levels of self-awareness often come to the idea of needing to apologize on their own. They’ve identified a situation and realized that wasn’t how they wanted to behave, they were authentic about their remorse, and they were clear about how it wasn’t in alignment with their values and were able to own it, even if not effectively. 

Self-awareness is great and powerful when we can recognize this behavior internally, but those revelations need to come outside of you and be heard by the person who was harmed by your actions. 

Sometimes, it’s a situation where it’s come to our attention that something we did or said unknowingly harmed somebody else. In these moments, get curious about trying to expand your understanding and ask yourself Wow, I totally did lash out, where did that come from?’ – the learnings from that reflection can help you in future situations to identify triggers or tension points that may drive you to show up as less than your best self. 

Often people will say “I’m sorry I snapped at you, I’ve just been really exhausted lately.” and then they leave it at that, hoping (or even expecting) that the recipient of harm will be understanding of your situation. 

And while it’s better than nothing, it’s not ideal because it centers your excuse, your triggers, your sense of entitlement to grace. Instead, commit to owning the impact you caused without explanation. Do the work yourself to recognize your triggers, and don’t verbalize them as an excuseinstead, commit to showing up differently in the future. 

We, again, go to our sample apologies. The bolded words are the portion where commitment is verbalized. 
Not Helpful: “Hey, I know I snapped at you yesterday and I want to apologize. I was having a really awful day and that meeting pushed me over the edge. “ 

Helpful: “Hey, I want to apologize to you for snapping yesterday. That’s not how I want to show up, but it was how I showed up in the meeting. I want to apologize for the impact that had on you and that I shut you down in that way.” 

You’ll notice the ‘Not Helpful’ apology again is missing this key component, while the ‘Helpful’ apology acknowledges that while you showed up in this reactionary way in this circumstance, you don’t want to show up that way in the future. 

Lastly, part of the healing work in relationships is taking ownership – ownership of your impact AND ownership of any areas where you may not have been totally clear on your needs. Something you can ask yourself is “What is something that I maybe haven’t shared with you that is valuable and important to me?” and once the reflection work is done, if appropriate, in a conversation after the apology takes place, you can share your insights with the recipient. This can sound like “Something I haven’t told you, is that ________ is important to me, this is an important need I have when working on projects like this.”

5. Ask for a do-over and begin to heal. 

Sometimes in relationships, I don’t think we realize we can ask for a do-over. This is a phrase our colleague, Gilmara, introduced to us, and we use this practice internally. And I want you to understand, this isn’t a phrase or practice to alleviate us of impact or to try and drive a point home. It’s not carte blanche to be more assertive, or more aggressive. Instead, it’s used to clarify and create together.  

It’s not uncommon that both parties may leave a regrettable situation feeling disheartened. But we can only control how we show up, and there’s a lot we can do to show up authentically, with accountability, and in alignment with our values. 

And a powerful place to start a doover is with an apology.  

This can sound like, “Hey, I would like a do-over on the project conversation we had this morning. I own that I didn’t show up as my best and I apologize for that and for the impact that had on you. After having some time to think about it, I’d like to try that one again. Would you be open to that?”  

And that then gives the recipient the choice to be open to a do-over or not. This will allow you to both start at the beginning and craft a more powerful partnership through a conversation reset. 

There is a shelf life for critical feedback, but I don’t believe there is a shelf-life for apologies. And if you’re committed to the idea of creating thriving, empathetic workplaces for humans, then creating a regular practice of owning your impact and apologizing with sincerity must be the heart of the work you’re doing. 

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Comments (2)

Sarah, you never fail me… you always hit home with me.

You rock! Is it okay if I share this article with our operators? I’m working on a Communication presentation and I would like to use your video on the Amygdala Highjack too, if that’s okay. I’ve never heard a better explanation of the Amygdala Highjack! No money changes hands. I am presenting to our internal operators only.

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