How to say ‘Sorry’ professionally

Jelena Fisic

Last updated on: March 8, 2022

Remember that angry email to your colleague you regretted the instant you sent it? 

What about losing your cool at the meeting and saying those words you probably didn’t even mean? 

Is there a magic word that can make your mistake go away and mend the relationship with the wronged person? 

What about ‘sorry’

Does ‘sorry’ really seem to be the hardest word, as Elton John once sang?

Actually, since conflict and/or mistakes are inevitable, an effective apology is one of the most important tools in workplace communication. Still, a simple ‘sorry’ might just not be enough.

As human beings, we have the need for reconciliation — which is why in this blog post, we’ll deal with apologizing. 

First, we’ll consider the importance of apologizing at work.

Then, we’ll imagine scenarios in which we haven’t apologized at work — and analyze the consequences of that unfortunate decision.

After that, we’ll dissect an effective apology.

In the end, we’ll give you some tips on how to apologize at work (including useful phrases you can use). 

Let’s dive into it! 

How to say ‘Sorry’ professionally - cover

Why is it important to apologize at work? 

I’ll give you two answers — a relatively short one and a longer one, with a few specific reasons.

Let’s start with the relatively short one.

According to the research article on conciliatory gestures, mammals are especially prone to use “conciliatory gestures” to signal their desire to end conflict and restore peace with other parties after the conflict. 

As mammals, we tend to have similar psychology, according to McCullough, one of the authors of this research.  

In other words, it’s in our nature to apologize and restore peace

If this is not enough, here comes the longer answer, with specific reasons.

By saying ‘sorry’ you show others that you acknowledge your actions 

Let’s say you were late for an important meeting. You prepared a presentation for your clients about the new features of the software you’re developing, but there wasn’t enough time to make your presentation. Your clients were dissatisfied with your unprofessional behavior and opted out of the deal. Your colleagues were mad at you, and rightly so, because your tardiness directly affected the project you’re working on together.

A pretty grim situation, right? 

Yes, but there is a five-letter-word solution — Sorry.

If you apologize to your colleagues for being late, you take responsibility for your actions and show your coworkers that you are aware that it affects the project.

By saying ‘sorry’ you rebuild trust 

When with certain transgressions you break trust among your colleagues, the road to redemption is paved with apologies. 

The previously mentioned research shows us that “the extent to which a transgressor offered conciliatory gestures to their victims was directly proportional to the extent to which those victims forgave over time.” 

These gestures change the victim’s perception of the transgressor and influence their relationship, improving the trust among coworkers.

Here’s what neuropsychologist Alexander Burgemeester had to say about this type of trust: 

“Although it can be uncomfortable, it is important to always own up to something you may not have been right about if it affects another coworker. It is also important to remember that you are not less of a person because you are apologizing, and it actually makes you much more respected.”

By saying ‘sorry’ you decrease workplace stress

If you’re already stressed, you don’t need other sources of stress that would worsen your condition. And, you’re not alone. 

According to a survey, The Workplace and Stress, conducted by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, one in five working adults experience a great deal of stress at work.  

So, if your actions have upset your colleagues (and, chances are, they have), apologizing might just be the way to decrease any workplace stress. 

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If you want to discover more ways of decreasing stress at the workplace, check out our in-depth article on wellness ideas for remote employees:

By saying ‘sorry’ you improve communication

Restoring peace in the workplace leads to better understanding and more open interpersonal communication in the future. 

If we keep in mind that, according to a McKinsey report, productivity increases by 20–25% in teams that communicate effectively, it’s easy to see why it’s important to mend workplace relationships by apologizing for your mistakes. 

Now that we’ve seen the benefits of apologizing at work, let’s consider what can happen if we don’t apologize. 

What can happen if you don’t apologize at work?

If saying ‘sorry’ has so many benefits for your workplace communication and collaboration, why do we sometimes avoid apologizing? 

Here’s what Dr. Michael Barbera, a consumer psychologist and a business strategy consultant, had to say about this problem:

An effective apology could mend an issue and enhance a relationship. 

Social science researchers hypothesize there are three barriers to a transgressor’s apology: 

  1. Potentially reduced levels of concern for the victim, 
  2. A perception that apologizing could threaten the transgressor’s self-image, and 
  3. A belief that apologizing could be ineffective at obtaining forgiveness.” 

If you don’t overcome these barriers, there are possible direct consequences on your workplace atmosphere, such as: 

  • Poor relationships — If you don’t apologize for your mistake, you might damage your relationship with your coworkers, which directly affects the work environment and productivity. 
  • Career limitations — Not apologizing for your mistakes at work might cost you that long-awaited promotion. Managers may not recommend you for a higher position because, by neglecting apologies, you’re showing that you’re not such a great team player and that you don’t own up to your mistakes.  
  • Incorrect impressions — You don’t want to leave the impression of being a difficult person. If you don’t apologize for your mistake, a negative impression is a given. 

— 

It’s time to get acquainted with the anatomy of an effective apology. 

6 components of an effective apology

Before we give you tips on how to apologize at work, we should consider the main components of an effective apology. 

In their article, An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies, Roy J. Lewicki, Beth Polin, and Robert B. Lount Jr. claimed that “the composition of an apology matters. The structure of these narratives — in other words, the consideration of both format and content — affects perceptions of the transgressor.”

Furthermore, they argue that a maximally effective apology should consist of 6 components: 

  1. An expression of regret — Instead of insisting that ‘it’s not your fault’, show regret for your mistake.  
  2. An explanation for why the offense occurred — Instead of an excuse, offer an explanation. Simply, explain how things went wrong.  
  3. An acknowledgment of responsibility — Admit your responsibility, without justifying yourself, and show that you are willing to do better in the future. 
  4. A declaration of repentance — Show your coworkers that you’re truly sorry for the mistake you’ve made.  
  5. An offer of repair — To avoid giving the wrong impression that you’re uncaring, offer to make up to your colleagues — e.g. by working longer hours or offering to fix any caused issues. That shows your coworkers that you’re willing to make amends. 
  6. A request for forgiveness — We’re not saying you should beg for forgiveness, but rather ask for an opportunity to show everyone that you can change your ways. 

Now that we’re familiar with the structure of an effective apology, it’s time for some more specific tips that will help you in your workplace communication. 

How to apologize at work 

An effective apology at work goes a long way and contributes to healthy workplace culture, to which we all strive. 

We’ve already analyzed the main components of an effective apology. 

Now, all that’s left for us to do is give you some specific tips on how to make your apology even more effective. 

Let’s start. 

1️⃣ Apologize soon after the incident

In 1992, the Vatican officially apologized to Galileo. Moreover, the pope agreed that the Earth revolves around the Sun. 

That’s admirable. 

The only minor problem with this apology is that it came more than three centuries too late

To avoid these kinds of cardinal mistakes when apologizing, make sure you do it soon after the incident.

That shows to your coworkers that you regret your actions, that you’re aware of the consequences of your transgressions, and that you want to make amends. 

However, if your transgression was a bit more serious, it’s better to wait for everyone to cool their heads, and only then proceed with the apologies. 

Apologizing soon after the incident (Pumble business messaging app)
Apologizing soon after the incident (Pumble business messaging app)

2️⃣ Decide how you’ll apologize

When apologizing, make sure you pay attention to both your verbal and body language.

Use the words ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I apologize’, and, if possible, apologize privately.

Whatever you do, make sure you omit any justifications, as well as the words “if” or “but”.

For example, refrain from apologies such as these ones: 

“I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings during the meeting.”

Or

“I’m sorry I made a mistake, but you knew I didn’t have enough time to finish the project.”

A consumer psychologist and a business strategy consultant Michael Barbera even advised us to skip the words “I am sorry” altogether, as they have become a complacent phrase:

“For example, if I accidentally bump into your shoulder, I would likely say ‘I am sorry.’ 

These words have reduced meaning; therefore, ‘I apologize’ or ‘my apologies’ are likely to be more effective.” 

Decide how you’ll apologize (Pumble business messaging app)
Decide how you’ll apologize (Pumble business messaging app)

3️⃣ Address your recipient by name

Addressing the recipient of your apology by name is respectful, and it shows that you’re aware that your actions have affected them directly. 

Altogether, addressing them by name improves the overall workplace atmosphere.

Aside from that, it adds to the sincerity. 

Addressing your recipient by name (Pumble business messaging app)
Addressing your recipient by name (Pumble business messaging app)

This leads us to our next tip.

4️⃣ Apologize with sincerity

If you want to deliver a sincere apology, first, you should try to understand how the other person feels. 

Empathy is the keyword here. 

If you don’t understand where you went wrong, it’s best to first discuss your transgression with the wronged party. 

Maybe then you’ll both understand each other better. If you can acknowledge your part in the problem, you’ll be able to sincerely apologize for your mistake. 

Apologizing with sincerity (Pumble business messaging app)
Apologizing with sincerity (Pumble business messaging app)

5️⃣ Validate how the other person feels

Always make sure you take the other person’s feelings into account. 

It’s essential to acknowledge their feelings and, if possible, include them in your apology, as in the example from the business messaging platform Pumble below.

Validate how the other person feels (Pumble business messaging app)
Validate how the other person feels (Pumble business messaging app)

Burgemeester also places a great value on validating other people’s feelings when apologizing:

“You should always acknowledge the other person’s feelings as well and give them a chance to speak. You can also ask for their forgiveness as you want the relationship to not be hindered by what happened.”

6️⃣ Admit to your responsibility (focus on your own actions)

This one’s maybe the hardest one — take responsibility for your actions. 

Nobody wants to be wrong, but the truth is — nobody can always be right. 

Whatever you do, when apologizing, don’t make excuses (even if you believe they are valid). 

It’s only natural to want to explain what happened, but don’t forget the crucial part of your apology — showing them that you’re aware of your mistake and that you’re sorry. 

Aside from all the above-mentioned benefits, this step shows your colleagues that you won’t repeat the same mistakes.

Admitting to your responsibility (Pumble business messaging app)
Admitting to your responsibility (Pumble business messaging app)

7️⃣ Explain how you’ll correct your mistake

When apologizing to your colleagues, don’t forget to mention how you’ll correct your mistake. This shows that you have thought about how you can make things right. 

Aside from that, you can show your coworkers you don’t intend to make the same mistake again. 

However, be realistic with your promises, if you want to keep them. 

For example, don’t promise them you won’t ever be late for work again — you cannot possibly know whether you can keep that promise. 

Explain how you’ll correct your mistake (Pumble business messaging app)
Explain how you’ll correct your mistake (Pumble business messaging app)

8️⃣ Keep your promises

After you’ve explained your plan for fixing the mistake you made, make sure you keep those promises. 

By doing that, you’re showing your coworkers that you’re sincere and committed to maintaining and improving your professional relationship with them. 

On the other hand, if you fail to keep your promises, you risk losing your team’s trust, not to mention how unprofessional that might seem to clients. 

However, if you keep your promise, it will surely be appreciated by your team. 

Keep your promises (Pumble business messaging app)
Keep your promises (Pumble business messaging app)

We’ve guided you through 8 steps towards an effective apology, but our work isn’t over just yet. 

In the following paragraphs, we will provide you with some useful phrases for apologizing at work.

By the end of this post, you’ll be fully equipped to effectively apologize. 

15 Useful phrases for apologizing at work 

All that’s left for us is to give you some useful phrases for apologizing that will help you become a more skilled communicator and a more considerate colleague.

Without further ado, here they are:

How to say sorry professionally
  1. “Sorry about that” — for minor mistakes

    “Looks like I gave you the wrong email address. Sorry about that.”

  2. “It was my fault” — for a little more serious mistakes

    “It was my fault that we didn’t meet the deadline.”

  3. “I take full responsibility” — when you caused the problem

    “I take full responsibility for failing to train the interns properly.”

  4. “My apologies for” — for all kinds of mistakes

    “My apologies for keeping you waiting. I’m running a little late today.”

  5. “I apologize for” — for all kinds of mistakes

    “I apologize for keeping you on the phone for so long. I know you are busy.”

  6. “I owe you an apology” — to open a conversation about apologizing

    “I owe you an apology. I said some horrible things to you.”

  7. “I should have” and “I shouldn’t have” — to talk about what the correct/right action would have been (which you didn’t do)

    “I shouldn’t have taken your computer mouse. I should have asked you first.”

  8. “That was wrong of me” — to express that your action was not morally correct

    “I gave you the silent treatment, and that was wrong of me.”

  9. “I truly/really/sincerely regret” — to express that you feel very bad about what you did, and you wish you had behaved differently

    “I truly regret my offensive comments.”

  10. “I sincerely apologize” — for all kinds of mistakes

    “Our website is not working properly. I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience.”

  11. “Please accept our apologies.” — for all kinds of mistakes

    “We have forgotten about the meeting. Please accept our apologies.”

  12. “I understand that X has caused Y…” — for apologizing for something you didn’t directly cause, but was the result of system malfunction or some other technical error

    “I understand that the blackout has caused major inconvenience for you. We’re fixing the problems as we speak.”

  13. “I was wrong on that.” — for apologizing for incorrect information

    “The meeting is actually on Friday, not on Thursday. I was wrong on that.”

  14. “How thoughtless of me!” — for criticizing ourselves for the mistake we’ve made

    “I completely forgot that James just got fired and asked him if he were going to the team building next month. How thoughtless of me!”

  15. “Please excuse my ignorance.” — for apologizing for our lack of knowledge or abilities

    “Please excuse my ignorance, but what exactly is a hotfix?”

Conclusion: Simple ‘sorry’ is not enough

Although deemed the hardest word, ‘sorry’ is not even enough when apologizing to your colleagues. 

You should take into account all the 6 components of an effective apology, and incorporate them into your own, if possible. 

Moreover, we’ve given you 8 tips that may help you in that quest — all of them equally important for achieving your goal. 

So, your apology should be:

  • Timely,
  • Properly executed,
  • Personal,
  • Sincere,
  • Empathic,
  • Responsible,
  • Proactive, and 
  • Reliably executed.

We strongly encourage you to take into consideration the advice our experts gave us and you’ll be on your way to redemption. 

Author: JelenaFisic

Jelena Fisic is a writer and researcher, constantly reading and broadening her knowledge about communication and collaboration. As a long-time remote worker, she is eager to share her experiences and gathered knowledge, and give you some tips for improving team communication and collaboration skills while working from home.

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