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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