How to Properly Apologize If You Messed up at Work

Making mistakes is a perfectly normal part of being human. When you mess up, doing the right thing means owning it, learning from it, apologizing and moving on.

That’s not how reality usually happens, because humans aren’t known for being graceful, and most of us don’t want to do anything to make life more awkward than necessary. When you mess up, fessing up feels hard because it might disrupt what harmony you do have in life. So, though you don’t mean to, you respond awkwardly.

An effective apology shows you understand what happened from both sides, recognize the damage and communicate regret and responsibility. What role did you play? You must take real responsibility, and leave “but” or “if” out of the equation.

You can’t text or email yourself out of this. Body language and tone will aid in your authentic approach of having a real conversation from one human being to another. Here are five situations with five appropriate apologies for when you mess up at work.

1. You Didn’t Have the Authority

You made a mistake on an issue that proved more complicated than you bargained for, and what’s worse, you gave the green light on a matter you had no authority on.

Talk to your supervisor promptly before the scenario escalates and you end up in deeper water. Be honest, present the case as it stands now and listen. Accept responsibility and take the necessary steps as instructed. Assure your boss it won’t happen again because you see this as a learning opportunity.

What to say: “I did not have the authority to make that decision, and I felt I was taking the initiative at the time. I’m sorry, and I assure you I will learn from this situation, so it doesn’t happen again. I need your help to fix what went wrong. How do we proceed?”

2. You Promised the Client That Pigs Really Can Fly

Exceeding client expectations nails you gold stars in the form of business trips overseas and big bonuses. Naturally, you aim higher each time to show how much your organization cares and the value you contribute to the team. Good on you — until you promise the client that pigs really can fly.

The problem is, they can’t, unless you put them on a plane. That costs money, and you may have just wasted the client’s time and company resources on something completely impossible.

Share what went wrong with the team, and ask for help on bringing it to the client and any higher-ups who need to know. When you break the news, you should also bring a proactive solution to the table.

What to say: “Unfortunately, what I promised you is not possible due to my oversight. I was eager and enthusiastic to make this happen for you, but I should have checked the budget/resources/etc. before giving that say-so. My team and I have worked out something you will love instead. Here’s what we’ve got…”

3. You Offended Your Coworker

You said something inappropriate and your coworker took offense, or maybe you made a passive-aggressive comment. Perhaps you corrected your coworker in front of everyone and sounded like a jerk. Consider your motivations, and know that it’s best to talk about such matters in private. Your coworker may be a highly sensitive person, and you used an inappropriate communication style.

Whether disagreeing over a project or the right way to grow sage, you realize the greater good of positive work culture means clearing the air. Maybe you meant it, maybe not, but focus on how you regret contributing to a rift at work.

The following apology will only work for everyday mishaps in miscommunication or when you got impatient or frustrated due to stress. It won’t work if you said something bigoted, sexist or racist, for example.

What to say: “I’m sorry for speaking to you like that. It was unprofessional and wrong. I plan to work on remaining calm in tense situations.”

5. You Blanked

You forgot to complete a project or blanked on rushing a document to a client. Brain fog due to stress or another health condition can mess with your memory. In the short term, cortisol can help combat stress as it calls white blood cells to action and boosts the immune system, but in the long term, stress causes the production of cortisol to bind to the brain’s hippocampus cells, the region that generates new memory from experience. The binding can disrupt the process and permanently damage synapses.

Sometimes, you turn into a space cadet for a day, perhaps due to the loss of a loved one or the short-term effects of a stressor you’re not yet aware of. You can also get distracted by more positive matters, such a new love in your life.

Your boss discovered you spaced and wants to know what happened, with a less-than-friendly look. What do you say to demonstrate that you’re not making empty excuses or an insincere apology? Your response should be genuine and provide a concrete timeline for when and how you plan to complete the task.

Don’t make the details too personal, but if you are suffering from stress, anxiety or a loss, speak up. The company and HR can work with you to make your load a little easier and flexible while you move through everything. Forty-two percent of Americans report stress-related irritability, so work to know your triggers and take breaks to get out your head. If you need time away, take it.

What to say: “I’m going to be honest and say that finishing the task got completely away from me. I sincerely apologize. I would like to work with you to develop a plan of action. For this task, I will come in early and have it complete on your desk by noon tomorrow.”

At first, speaking up will feel awkward, but that’s part of being human, feeling and doing uncomfortable things in addition to the struggles and joys of life. At work, trust and open communication are intrinsic to success and positive work culture.

Let these answers guide you through tricky and tense situations to emerge on the same page with your boss or coworker. Adjust the answers to your situation and personality to make a stronger connection in your communication. It’s best to be accountable and be a proactive part of the solution. Take the higher road. And, if it’s truly not your fault, here’s how to handle misplaced blame in the workplace.

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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