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Workplace voodoo: when wrong, try apologizing

You’ve screwed up at work. What do you do?

1. Hide it.

2. Lose sleep.

3. Worry constantly about being found out.

4. Think up a plausible excuse in case someone rats you out.

5. Avoid blame at all costs.

6. Tell your supervisor what you did and offer to make it right.

Anyone circle number six?

If you’re like most people, you apologize only under duress. But apologizing to a boss, co-worker or client? There’s just no way. Saying you’re sorry is a sign of weakness or an admission of guilt, right?

Wrong. The courage to recognize and apologize for causing distress is an exercise in strength and a sign of good character—qualities you really need in the workplace. In fact, some research suggests that admitting a mistake and expressing remorse can help you improve your performance.

Trust and empathy

Medical schools are starting to catch on. Most physicians are now taught how to admit medical errors and express their regret. The practice not only helps strengthen the bond of trust between doctor and patient, it’s also believed to lower the likelihood of a malpractice lawsuit.

On the flip side, let’s look at what happens around the person who refuses to apologize. First off, the optics are terrible. The non-apologizer is likely to come across as rigid, arrogant and insecure. Her lack of compassion and empathy will make it hard to create a cohesive team, and can raise doubts about her fitness for leadership.

But knowing how to apologize well is a workplace asset. A sincere apology, wherever it’s delivered, can mend rifts, heal emotional wounds and repair damage. That applies to any damage, whether inflicted on a material object, a reputation or a relationship.

Be careful what you wish for

In my former corporate life, a guy I’ll call Roy worked in the accounting department of my organization. Roy seemed to enjoy jerking my chain. He routinely withheld information, waiting until my third or fourth email before providing information I requested.

The showdown came when I needed some data to complete a report that was due on the CEO’s desk the next day. Roy informed me I would have to wait a week. Through clenched teeth, I said, “I’d hate to have to tell the CEO that his proposal got stalled on your desk.”

The next morning there was no report from Roy, but there was something else: a note from human resources. Apparently in HR-speak, my remark constituted borderline harassment. The HR director suggested an apology to Roy would help me avoid any “unintended consequences.”

Apparently in HR-speak, my remark constituted borderline harassment.

Deep down I knew the HR director was right. I’d brought the trouble on myself. In my frustration, I’d hinted that Roy’s job was in jeopardy if he didn’t make it snappy and do what I asked. I swallowed my pride and went to Roy’s cubicle. “I know you have a thankless job and lot of conflicting priorities, and I was trying to muscle my way to the top of the pile,” I said. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

I had the report on my desk that afternoon, and ever afterward Roy was pleasant and cooperative. That’s one of the magical things that can happen with a sincere apology: it’s a paradoxical superpower.

Rise above

If a simple apology can have such an impact on a single conflict, imagine the cumulative effect of regular practice, not only with supervisors and direct reports, but also with clients and customers. When you stop being afraid to admit your mistakes, your confidence rises. You feel—and look—like someone who’s trustworthy, decent and fully invested in the organization.

And why not? You’ve cracked the code to getting along with just about anyone. You might even enjoy your job again.

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