Friday, August 15, 2008

Why Accepting an Apology is Harder Than It Looks

When you make a mistake at work, do you apologize? Many of you will say “yes”. It’s easier, after all, to move on if you admit that you messed up and simply say, “I’m sorry” to whoever your actions may have impacted.

Now here’s a possibly tougher question: Do you always accept an apology?

Well, of course, you may say. That’s what happens when someone apologizes. You are adult about it and say something like “It’s OK” or “It’s fine.”

But is it really?

Because the truth is, when you get smacked around by life, you want someone to blame. You want to hold someone responsible for whatever happened, for whatever hurt was caused.

Let’s say a co-worker apologizes to you for forgetting to forward you important information, and that caused you to make an error in a report to your boss. The erroneous report made the boss pretty unhappy, and you caught the brunt of that displeasure. Now, the co-worker is saying she is sorry for causing you problems.

In most situations like this at work when someone apologizes, we say “It’s OK” or “I understand” or at least grunt some kind of acceptance. But the truth is that you’d like to lash out at the colleague who caused you such problems, to say that the ass-chewing delivered to you by the boss was all her fault, and her actions were hurtful.

Hurtful? You may think that’s too strong a word. After all, she didn’t “hurt” you in the same way as would a friend or loved one might, but still, you feel the sting of her actions.

So, while you may say you forgive her -- and give the appearance of moving on -- the truth is that you’re nursing a grudge. You think about her behavior. She’s unorganized. She’s unprofessional. She’s immature. She’s selfish. All attributes that led to your problems, right?

You start to feel a little better. Your self-righteousness starts to blossom. It was all her fault. You never would have made such a mistake. You would never have been so sloppy.

By the time you have lunch with several other co-workers, you’ve worked up a head of steam. You share your righteous indignation with others over the unfairness of it all, how you had to take the blame for someone else’s poor performance.

While it may feel good in the short run to play the blame game, you’re really losing in the long run. Why? Because you’ve never stopped to consider your own part in all of this mess and how it can be avoided in the future. In other words, you’re dooming your career to experience these setbacks again and again.

Let’s look at the way you should really accept an apology:

• Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You may discover that the person who made the mistake has been saddled with the work of two other people who were laid off. She has been struggling to keep up with the workload, and has little support from the manager. You come to understand that if you were in the same position, you might forget a thing or two.
• Fix the problem, not the blame. In evaluating what happened, you see that you could have double-checked the information and found the error before presenting the report to the boss. You decide that you need to build in some extra time to verify information, and give others a chance to weigh in to make sure no errors slip past you.
• See the outcome as good and bad. Yes, you got in trouble with the boss because of the error. That’s bad. On the other hand, you see that you need to be more diligent in double-checking information, that your process needs to be tweaked and improved. Such attention to quality will be a good work habit to develop and will positively impact your performance. That’s good.

The next time someone offers you an apology at work, stop for a minute and think about what’s really the best way to handle it. Instead of focusing on the “I’m right and you’re wrong” mentality, remember that no one is perfect. You have – and will – make mistakes in the future, and so will everyone else. It’s the ability to truly accept an apology and move on that will determine your future successes.

Have you ever had difficulty accepting – and moving on – after someone offered an apology? What’s the best way to get past your hurt or anger?


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Unknown said...

I really did love every bit of this article. To me, it is relevant at work and at home. It used to be hard for me to do what you described. But then, once you realize how many mistakes you've made, it gets easier.

Great read!

Anita said...

It's like anything else. It get easier with practice! Seriously, it's hard for us to open ourselves up to criticism from others and from ourselves. But once we see it can be a growing experience, I think we can start getting past it faster and learning from it.
Welcome to my blog -- hope you will stop by often.

Anonymous said...

When we feel that someone else is to blame for something that happened to us, in this case an error in a report, shouldn't we first think about how much we ourselves are to blame in this situation? Is the other one really sole responsible, or is it rather shared responsibility? Were we clear enough about the importance/urgency of the matter when asking for that information? Did our colleague know about our exposure? Do we know what (s)he really thinks/feels? Etc.

Furthermore, what have we done to protect ourselves, if anything? Was there a backup strategy? Does the report state what version of the information it is based on? Etc.

More importantly, what have we learned from this experience? How will we ensure that it will not repeat itself? How can we support our colleague to perform better, more reliably, or simply to our standard? Can we clarify our expectations? Are they documented/traceable (in an email for example)?

And do we actually know the people that we rely on? What is the rapport/relationship that we have established with them? And how is the single/repeated event going to influence that relationship? Will we continue our reliance on this colleague, give him/her an 2nd (3rd) chance, or will we evaluate alternate routes? Is it worth investing in this colleague, or do we have the (mutual) feeling that there is no added value? How is this impacting our overall feeling/motivation at work? Is this an isolated incident or is there a pattern? If so, have we thought about creative ways to break that pattern?

How can we develop a working relationship where all parties buy into the quality of our deliverable, feel committed? In other words, how can we share both risk & reward?

Finally, and most importantly, what is our true feeling towards the other? Do we feel empathy or anger? Do we feel hurt, jealous, frustrated, discouraged, ... and have we expressed this feeling? Would it actually help if we shared our feelings with this colleague, rather than simply accepting/acknowledging an apology?

And after all the questions: a word of advice: try to take distance, breath calmly and deeply, look at the situation in a factual, non-emotional way, feel compassionate, be assertive without aggression...

Anita said...

What a thoughtful response. You've given us a lot to think about and consider. I really like the way you stress the importance of communication -- external and internal.
Thanks for posting.