How Not to Mess Up an Apology

Apologies should be easy to deliver. Here’s where we all stumble – when we believe that we did nothing wrong. “What’s the problem here – we are all grownups?”

We do not have the right to define what another person finds offensive – be it a policy, words, or attitude. If someone is upset or insulted by an act, apologize. Accept how they feel (empathy), own your role whether it is intentional or not, and apologize. The formula isn’t complicated.

We work with many strong, decisive business leaders and I teach MBA students at Wharton – not all of them are overly keen about showing empathy. Some think empathy is a weakness.

Quite the contrary, showing empathy takes courage.

The biggest predictor of loss in a crisis is a lack of empathy. And when we talk ‘loss’, we are talking loss of trust, loss of reputation, loss of authority, loss of loyalty, loss of business. A sincere apology and the genuine recognition of the harm your actions have caused is the first, real opportunity to show empathy, and the perfect prelude to a genuine apology.

Very often, the ‘harm’ caused was completely unintentional. An insensitive comment, a thoughtless gesture, perhaps? We manage clients’ crises every day, and they vary in severity: A manager makes a sexist remark about an employee’s voice, a 3rd party vendor’s mistake leads to a data breach, patients complain about the price of a medication, a CEO is overhead repeating a tasteless joke that demeans a gender different from theirs, an armed customer brandishes his weapon in a parking lot scaring other customers… many of these dramas end up playing out on every social media platform and in some cases, traditional news.

Our strategy to limit the spread and duration of an ‘incident’ is scalable – apologize and illustrate clearly how this incident will not be repeated because of changes you have made. If people perceive themselves to be victims, it is critical to accept accountability and apologize as quickly as you can. The quicker victims feel genuine empathy, the more likely they are to forgive and move on. “See my pain – don’t dismiss it.”

So, apologize and mean it. Your choice of words can weaken your sincerity and worse,  leave the recipient even more offended.

Here’s one example of a good apology, and a handful of ‘ insincere apologies’:

#1. Own the mistake and identify with the victim/s.

“I am so sorry you were spoken to that way. It is inexcusable. Every employee deserves our full respect and appreciation. The executive responsible for the hurtful comment has been placed on unpaid leave and will be attending gender sensitivity training in the fall while the incident is under investigation.” Empathy, sincerity, and actionable resolution; all elements of an effective apology.

#2. Own the blame. Do not pass it on to someone or something else.

“I apologize – it was the rum and coke talking.” Um… no; it was definitely you.

#3. Avoid passing the responsibility onto the victim.

“I am sorry you found the language offensive.” That implies that there was nothing wrong with the language – it was the victim who was at fault.

#4. The apology destroyer ‘but’ conjunction.

“I am sorry, but you should not have laughed at my previous comments. I thought we had a connection.” Started great but quickly veers offs taking responsibility.

Push pride aside and focus on closure. Deliver your apology as soon as you can, and with a megadose of empathy. Save the day and your reputation.



  • GillespieHall Anatomy of a Crisis
  • The Empathetic Apology, Hubbard.
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