Rise above the politics of an apology

201601-pexels-water-rocksYou probably heard about the U.S. boat that mistakenly entered Iranian waters this week. Iran captured the boat, held the US Navy personnel overnight, then released them all the next day.

Part of the coverage was an article from The Wall Street Journal titled “U.S. Denies Apologizing to Iran Before Release of Sailors”.


The issue was that Iran claimed they released the boat and personnel after (a) discovering that mechanical failures led the boat to drift into Iranian waters, and (b) the U.S. apologized for the incident. The State Department clearly didn’t like the part about the claimed apology, and denied it happened.

This is politics for you. We have to deliberate over whether an apology was, or wasn’t, issued. We have to debate over whether it was, or wasn’t, necessary. Then, depending on those debates, we have to debate whether an apology is, or isn’t, in our national interest.

It’s absurd. And fortunately, you can avoid a lot of this absurdity in your workplace.

I’m not saying workplace politics don’t exist. They clearly do. Let’s zero in on the notion of an apology.

Can an apology make you look weak? Sure. If you run around apologizing all the time, regardless of what happened or why, you’ll look foolish. Don’t do that.

But what about the strategic apology? What about the apology you give, even when you know what happened wasn’t your fault? What about the apology that’s meant to defuse a situation and show empathy for your boss, your colleague, or your direct report?

I’m not arguing to use apology as a form of manipulation. I’m arguing to know all the different ways an apology can be used.

What if a stakeholder didn’t get a report he was expecting? What if that report actually come from someone else, but for some reason his frustration was directed at you?

“I’m sorry you didn’t get the report. I’ll look into what happened and let you know what I find.”

This kind of apology is a win in two ways:

  1. It acknowledges your stakeholder’s pain.
  2. It lets him know you’re on the case and will report back soon.

Now, say you find out he shouldn’t come to you with this kind of request. When you report back on what happened, say something like, “If this happen again, reach out to Lucy in Finance. She’s the owner of this report and can get it to you ASAP.”

Bravado gets in the way. Try to be too tough at work, and you’ll come across as an unapproachable jerk. That’s not helpful, particularly when you’re trying to push your career in a new direction.

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