Workplace apologies can do a world of good

Updated: 2013-05-15T03:22:39Z


Special to The Star

Recently, researchers conducted a small study that found people feel more empowered when they don’t apologize.

I had to do a double take when I read that because it goes against everything I find to be the foundation of dealing more effectively with people in the workplace.

In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say that failure to make the easy apologies when you knowingly bruise someone’s feelings over an inept comment or assumption is what snowballs into the bigger issues that can sometimes trigger complaints and lawsuits.

The study by Tyler G. Okimoto1, Michael Wenzel and Kyli Hedric said that although people who did apologize often felt better for having done so, the people who refused to apologize were found to have higher self-esteem.

I’m not one to think that people should be made to apologize for anything. I think an insincere apology or one mandated by law or authority is a waste of air and paper.

A true apology is an internal act first and foremost. It starts with an acknowledgment that you improperly intruded on the feelings of another. A good apology — which isn’t always the same as a sincere one — also recognizes what you did that caused the harm and why that person would find it hurtful.

So, that’s great that your self esteem is higher because you didn’t apologize for stepping on someone’s toe in your steel-toed boots, but that’s irrelevant to the person who is experiencing the shooting pain.

If you don’t think you did something wrong, that’s one thing. Two people can truly have a different interpretation of how the same event went down. And sometimes there is no ground between you to stand on to apologize.

But when you know you have an apology to give and make a conscious decision not to do so, I think you are making a direct deposit in the karma bank. Especially when the apology due is to someone in the workplace and especially when the issue is insulting or offending them because of some difference you have conscious or unconscious bias around.

I frequently hear the complaint that as a society we’ve become too sensitive. In fact, that’s why so many people cringe at the thought of going to diversity training. It’s because they mistakenly think they know all there is to know or they resent having to undergo what they perceive of as “sensitivity training,” both of which strike against their egos.

And for some, that’s what an apology feels like — a blow against their ego, an attempt to make them weak, permission to diminish their self esteem. But a sincere apology is a sign of strength, courage and deserved self-esteem.

When it comes to the diversity missteps that I repeatedly see, it frequently comes down to one simple dynamic: One person offends and refuses to acknowledge the offense, so the other person escalates the issue just to have the original offense recognized.

Bottom line, if you’re human, you sometimes make mistakes. Apologize and move on. Your self-esteem may be temporarily lifted by refusing to do so. But so what? You’re not the one with the bruised toe; you’re the one who caused it.

Send questions to Michelle T. Johnson on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/diversitydiva. Follow her at Twitter.com/divaofdiversity.

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