I’m Sorry: The Amazing, Incredible Power of a Managerial Apology

Sometimes, I think the business world has made an art out of the non-apology apology.

You know the kind I’m talking about:

  • I’m sorry if it seemed as if I was attacking you.” (Seemed? You screamed and likened your employee to a 5-year-old.)
  • I’m sorry you feel that way.” (You’re not at all sorry. You think your employee’s feelings are stupid and so is he.)
  • “I’m sorry, but you ____________ (fill-in-the-blank). (Basically, this individual provoked you and got what she had coming, huh?)

And on and on.

Yes, a REAL apology does help

And here’s the thing: the non-apology apology never fools the recipient. Ever. Ultimately then, it never helps to quell conflict. In fact, the non-apology apology can even heighten conflict.

But you know what does help? An honest-to-God real apology.

And let’s face it — if you’re responsible for managing people, you’ve done a few things in your time that warrant a real apology, I’m sure of it.

Story time. (My favorite time!)

I once worked for a women who was very assertive and very — how shall I say this? — comfortable with her authority.

She’d been hired to replace the person who hired me, and within three minutes of working together I decided, “I’m getting outta here.” This boss was the proverbial bull in the china shop. She stomped in and immediately starting cleaning house.

Well, one day I accepted a lunch invitation extended by the boss’s assistant and another support staffer. During that lunch (which began innocently enough) those two let loose about our new boss and her management style. Being the good little HR Manager, I listened closely, uttered a few carefully inserted “hmmms” and “uh-huhs,” and provided as much encouragement as my sinking heart could muster.

The lunch ran late, and we all trailed back into the office late.

And found our new boss there waiting for us.

I was immediately ushered into her office where she proceeded to rip me a new one for taking advantage, being disrespectful, and moreover being a bad, BAD example to staff about how not to heed our 45-minute lunchtime policy. (And it was true. I hated that friggin’ policy.)

I apologized .. and then the boss did, too

I remained silent throughout the tirade, not wanting to betray any confidences by pointing out that the lunch had actually evolved into a quasi-counseling session about how to work with her. And, technically at least, she had me dead to rights.

So, I calmly offered an apology and said it wouldn’t happen again.

Of course, I mostly meant “This won’t happen again because I’m getting the hell out of here ASAP,” but it’s the same difference. Anyway, this story isn’t about my apology, OK?

That’s because the next morning, the boss called me into her office again.

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This time her tone was a little different. She said she was sorry for the way she’d spoken to me the day before. She said she’d been upset about something else entirely and taken it out on me. She said I didn’t deserve that, and she wouldn’t do it again.

A sign of maturity and basic decency

Wow. While wary, I was still impressed.

I continued looking for a new job, but not quite as enthusiastically, and eventually I stopped looking altogether. It turns out that the apology was a great indicator of my boss’s true character. Over the next few months, I’d learn that (despite our rough start) she was a fantastic boss and an even better person. (And by the way, she kept her word and never again spoke to me harshly.)

So there you have it, and I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Only a fool or a very misguided person believes that offering a sincere apology is a sign of weakness. In truth, humbling yourself to a subordinate is a sure sign of strength, not to mention basic decency.

So try it sometime! I guarantee your employees will like it.

Crystal Spraggins

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.