Have you ever worked with someone who absolutely will not apologize, no matter how clearly he or she was at fault? It might not be stubbornness. Many people avoid saying they’re sorry at work, working under the assumption that their mea culpa will come off as an admission of weakness. The tricky thing is, they’re not entirely wrong.
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“In academic terms, apologies act as a transfer of power from the offender to the victim,” writes Janet Paskin at Businessweek, referring to a 2012 study from three universities in Australia, which found that not apologizing can have psychological benefits for the apology-withholder.
The trouble is, the researchers found that the benefits, which take the form of a boost in self-esteem and perception of power, exist even when subjects were in the wrong. In other words, withholding apologies allows you to feel great, even if you don’t deserve to.
In the long term, this could have obvious negative repercussions in a work environment, such as your colleagues encasing all of your desk toys in Jello or using The Secret to try to get your name on the layoff list. No one wants to work with a jerk, in other words, and only jerks refuse to say they’re sorry.
So how do you apologize the right way, and smooth things over at the office without ceding your power completely? Observe the following rules:
1. Make your apologies count.
Some people apologize as a sort of kneejerk reaction, and they’ll do it consistently, whether or not the situation is really their fault. If you absolutely haven’t done anything wrong, don’t fall into the trap of acting like you did.
Women, especially, are often trained from childhood to take responsibility for everything from bad weather to a paper jam. Reserve the words “I’m sorry” for situations that arose directly because of your own decisions or actions. Otherwise, it’s better to say something along the lines of “that’s really frustrating” or “how awful.”
For example, if you’re late to work because it’s raining, you’re not sorry about the rain — you’re sorry because you didn’t think to leave more time for the commute.
2. If you’re going to say you’re sorry, do it the right way.
“None of this, ‘I’m sorry if you are offended’ BS,” writes Ijeoma Oluo at XOJane. “No, ‘I’m sorry if you took it that way.’ An apology is, ‘I did ____ and it caused _____. I’m sorry.'”
Anything less is just a way of trying to shift responsibility without accepting blame. Not only is that not right, it’s ineffective. If you thought your colleague was annoyed when you ate her lunch out of the communal fridge, wait until she hears that you think it’s her fault for not labeling it more clearly.
3. Make a plan to make things better.
The real point of an apology is to show willingness to be accountable and to make amends. To make it count, you have to follow through. Do this by showing that you’ve thought about what went wrong, and how to fix the problem and keep it from happening again.
Then shake it off and move forward, secure in the knowledge that you’ve approached a difficult situation in a constructive fashion — and that makes you a rarity, in business or in the world at large.
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