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3 Types of Useless Apologies

Not all apologies are created equal. Here are three ineffectual concessions that you can probably dismiss.

The experts agree: The phrase "I'm sorry" can go a long way toward smoothing over a major oops. Even defense lawyers have begun advising their clients to apologize for wrongdoing in order to steer civil beefs away from the courtroom.

But an apology doesn't function like a get-out-of-jail-free card--a mistake is still a mistake. And as a boss, you need to be on the lookout for the unproductive apologies.

Here are three bad apologies to watch out for, according to Dr. Heidi Halvorson, author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.

1. An apology with a million excuses.

The problem with excuses--aside from demonstrating a lack of personal responsibility--is that they turn the focus of an apology away from the wronged party... and onto the perpetrator.

"Most people tend to make their apologies about themselves--about their intentions, thoughts, and feelings," writes Dr. Halvorson for the Harvard Business Review.

"When you screw up, the victim of your screw up does not want to hear about you. Therefore, stop talking about you and put the focus of your apology where it belongs: on him or her."

Specifically, a good apology should concentrate on the parties wronged by an employee's action, on how they are feeling, and on what the employee can do to move things forward, she writes.

2. An apology that's disproportionate to the crime.

There are many ways to offer compensation for a misplaced action, but not all are appropriate to the workplace. Offers of monetary compensation, for example, might work well for a coffee spill or the accidental destruction of a colleague's cell phone--but those events are few and far between in an office setting.

Instead, Dr. Halvorson suggests, look for apologies that acknowledge the damage done to productivity and emotional well-being in the workplace. 

"The colleague accidentally left out of the loop doesn't want compensation," she writes. The damage wasn't incurred by a piece of property, but the trust equity of your workplace. Look for apologies that acknowledge the value of trust and cooperation--and express empathy for the person wronged, she suggests.

3. An apology that only pertains to the boss.

As a supervisor, receiving a heartfelt apology from your employee can feel like a positive resolution. But you may not be the only one looking for a mea culpa. In team settings, where an employee's actions may have gotten his or her colleagues into hot water, it is especially important to look at who the wrongdoer apologizes to.

"In team settings, people don't want compensation or empathy--they want an acknowledgement of violated rules and norms," writes Dr. Halvorson. "Chances are it's not just [the] boss that's affected-;it's [the] whole team, and possibly [the] whole organization."

A genuine apology in these situations, she concludes, should come with an acknowledgement of violating the expected code of behavior in the company or organization. And an employee who only apologizes to the boss may not take his responsibility to his co-workers seriously.

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Last updated: Jun 25, 2013

FRANCESCA FENZI | Staff Writer

Francesca Fenzi reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle.




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