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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Made a Mistake? 5 Steps to Saying "I'm Sorry"

Unless you were blessed with super-human powers, you’ve likely experienced an occasional workplace misstep. I’ve made my fair share of these types of mistakes, and have learned that while messing up is hard, learning how to apologize for what’s happened can be even harder.

Chances are, your co-workers will forget what happened faster than you will, but your recovery will be much smoother if you quickly and sincerely own up to your error and find a way to resolve it. Here’s some advice on how to say “I’m sorry” and power through a workplace faux pas.

1. React Quickly

Seriously. This sounds simple enough, but after a big “oops” moment (hitting “reply” instead of “forward,” anyone?), our natural inclination is often to freeze, and wish—really hard—that it never happened.

But instead of becoming paralyzed with guilt or fear, channel that heart-pounding energy into a quick response. When you’ve made a blunder, it should be you (not someone else) delivering the news to the people impacted. As frustrating as it may be for your boss to hear from you that you’ve lost the files for the big meeting, it will be a lot worse if she hears about it from someone else first.

2. Just Say No—to Email

It’s awkward and requires some faster thinking, but delivering an apology in-person or over the phone is always best. For one, tone really matters when you’re saying “I’m sorry,” and we’ve all seen how simple email or text messages can be misconstrued. Plus, apologizing to someone in person prevents the dreaded email forwarding cycle, where everyone in the world gets involved. If you're nervous, prepare by writing down what you want to communicate, and practicing with someone you trust (if you can do so quickly—see #1).

3. Be Honest

Everyone makes mistakes (yes, really!), so don’t try to sweep yours under the rug or place blame on other people—honesty is always the safest route. Your best bet is admitting exactly what happened, why, and what you’re doing to fix it and prevent it from happening again. You might start out by saying, “I’m really sorry the wrong files got sent to the printer, but I can explain what caused the error and what I’m doing to fix things as quickly as possible.”

4. Be Humble

Along with being honest, it’s important to maintain a sense of humility as you apologize. You don’t need to stoop to the level of groveling or pleading for forgiveness—in fact, don’t—but you should communicate that you clearly understand the impact your mistake has had on others. A calm and straightforward “I realize that my mix-up of the dates really puts your team in a bind, and I’m very sorry” communicates respect and concern for those dealing with whatever consequences your actions have had. Also give the other party a chance to voice any concerns and ask questions.

5. Have a Little Faith

After you’ve made a mistake, it might feel like a monumental disaster—but don’t let it derail you for too long. A single flub won’t define you, and it’s important to move past what happened and get back in the groove of things.

The path toward success is often paved with sharp turns and unexpected bumps. Going through these obstacles is never fun, but it does get easier with the right approach and a little experience. Mistakes happen, but delivering a sincere apology can turn a stressful situation into an opportunity to prove your commitment to the job.

Photo courtesy of Joi Ito.