You remember the 1970s catchphrase from Eric Segal’s Love Story, “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry?” Well, like many catchphrases, it happens to be wrong.
We’re humans. We mess up. When we do, we show consideration for one another by cleaning up our mess. Accountability means taking responsibility for our own mess and cleaning it up as best we can. The first step in accountability is taking responsibility for our actions by apologizing for the mess they caused.
The Anatomy of an Apology
Today happens to have been the Day of Atonement for millions of Jews around the world. It is a day on which Jewish people have, every year for millennia, applied themselves to retrospection and apology to one another, to God, to humanity, and to themselves. They apologize for the mess they’ve made, the harm and hurt they’ve caused and the damage they’ve done to others, the world, and most of all themselves. The Jewish people use a framework for this process of apology which I have successfully applied in facilitating difficult apologies for conflict resolution. I have used it with teams, organizations, and in mitigating reputational damage between national and organizational leaders and their stakeholders. This framework entails acknowledging the wrongdoing, feeling authentic remorse about the impact of our actions, and then taking steps to ensure that we don’t repeat the same action in the future.
The framework entails acknowledging the wrongdoing, feeling authentic remorse about the impact of our actions, and then taking steps to ensure that we don’t repeat the same action in the future.
For example, let’s imagine for example, that you forgot to invite a close colleague at work to your wedding. The colleague assumes the omission was intentional and feels hurt by the oversight.
Articulation: One of the most challenging aspects of an authentic apology is vocalizing it, first to oneself and then to others. Often, when we attempt to articulate an apology, we tend to downplay the seriousness of our actions. For instance, we might say something like, “I’m sorry that you felt hurt by what was just an unintentional slip-up on my part.” In both cases, we shift blame onto the other person, implying that they misunderstood us rather than acknowledging our wrongdoing. If someone feels offended, damaged, or hurt by something we say or do, our intention is not the most critical factor. Just as unintentional damage to someone else’s property holds us accountable, unintentional emotional damage should too. A more appropriate apology might be, “I was careless in forgetting to include you on my invitation list, and my carelessness caused you pain. Considering how much I value you, I should never have made that mistake and hurt you as I did.” In this way, you validate the other person’s feelings instead of judging them, helping them move forward.
Validate the other person’s feelings instead of judging them. This helps them to move forward.
Remorse: An inauthentic apology is worse than no apology at all. It leaves the other person feeling that you not only wronged them but also that you don’t regret it. Before you apologize, check in with yourself and ask whether you genuinely feel responsible for your actions and whether you truly regret them. If you don’t feel responsibility and regret, hold off on apologizing. A courteous, transactional apology does nothing to heal the hurt or repair the rift. If you’ve found true remorse within yourself, put it into words and say something like, “You cannot imagine how deeply I regret causing you pain.”
The Future: Real accountability means not only apologizing for the past but also taking steps to prevent repetition in the future. Sharing the steps you’ve taken reinforces the sincerity of your feelings and helps repair the damage done. You might say something like, “I’ve already set a reminder in my calendar to reach out to you after our honeymoon and arrange a time for just the two of us to connect.”
This same framework can be used in any work situation where you’ve made a mistake that caused damage. For example, if you allowed a document to go out without checking, resulting in a $15,000 loss for the company, you might approach your manager and say, “I take full responsibility for the $15,000 loss caused by my oversight in allowing a document to go out without careful review. I’m deeply disappointed in myself for not taking full ownership of the document and its consequences. To prevent this from happening again, I’ve implemented a process where no external document or communication will be sent without my approval. I’ve also allocated time in my daily schedule to ensure this doesn’t become a bottleneck in our communication. Please accept my apology for what happened, and I assure you it won’t happen again.”
Bishop Desmond Tutu’s 1995 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa went a long way in healing the human pain and national scars caused by apartheid. It could do so only because of the many heart-felt public apologies that individuals on both sides made. The TRC laid a solid foundation for the birth of what Nelson Mandela optimistically called “The Rainbow Nation.”
Mistakes can cause material loss at work and emotional damage at home. An apology not only repairs the damage but, if carefully crafted and genuine, can strengthen the relationship beyond its previous state.