Being a great boss doesn't mean you have to be perfect (even managers are human, after all), but it does mean you should own up to your mistakes and apologize when you're in the wrong--even if it's hard or embarrassing, or the mistake seems insignificant.
Whether you've called out an employee for missing a deadline that isn't actually until next week, miscalculated a sales quote, or were uncharacteristically snappy during the weekly team call, a genuine "I'm sorry" will mean a lot to your employees. It'll also make you a better, more respected leader in the process.
So it's worth getting your apology right. An effective one will be sincere, direct, and free of justification--that means no making excuses! But the delivery may vary based on what you did and who was affected. Here's how the best bosses apologize, depending on the severity of their mistakes.
When You Make a Minor Mistake: Send an Email
If you've given an employee inaccurate information, overlooked an important email, or failed to approve their vacation request on time, a brief acknowledgment of your error via email or Slack should suffice.
While the mistake may seem super minor--and you may be tempted to merely brush it off or ignore it--showing your employee that you care about getting things right (even the really small stuff) will mean a lot in building trust with them. It'll also help to establish a larger culture of accountability. If the boss doesn't have a problem saying "I'm sorry," neither should the rest of the team.
What This Looks Like
I want to apologize for misplacing your expense report. That was my mistake. Thanks for following up with me on this--I've sent it off to finance for immediate approval.
I just realized that I asked you to schedule the new client meeting for the wrong date. That's on me and I'm sorry. Would you mind rescheduling for next week? I know how hard it can be to get everyone's calendars synced up, so let me know if you need any help.
When You Notice a Slip-Up in Real Time: Address it on the Spot
There will inevitably be times when your memory fails you or you say something that sounds a little harsh. When you catch yourself making a mistake in the moment, pause, take a breath, and acknowledge your error.
Catching these slip-ups as soon as they happen will help to keep them from turning into larger issues. Letting a harsh comment or an erroneous statement slide can breed resentment among your team, especially if you regularly ignore your mistakes. Your employees may start to wonder why you're always so grumpy or why you don't take time to read through their reports in advance.
So address the mistake, apologize with sincerity, and move on. And the last part is key. You don't want to prolong the conversation by getting hung up on the details--that's just unnecessary and uncomfortable for everyone involved.
If you're concerned that your slip of the tongue might require a more thorough apology after the fact, you can always follow up directly with the person or people you offended (more on that below).
What This Sounds Like
"I apologize, I think I may have gotten that wrong. Can anyone confirm those dates for me?"
"I'm sorry, that didn't come out the way I wanted it to. Let me try this again."
When Your Actions Affect Someone Specifically: Give a Face-to-Face Apology
If you've hurt someone's feelings, missed an important meeting with someone, or jumped to an unfair conclusion about a specific person, you'll want to apologize in person. When in doubt, and even if you addressed it in the moment, it always helps to also meet with them one-on-one.
Send your employee a calendar invitation or stop by their desk as soon after the event as possible. This may be a brief exchange or could lead to a lengthier conversation--which is why it helps to throw it on the calendar or go into a private conference room in case you need to hash some stuff out. Either way, be prepared to listen and try not to get defensive if the person decides to animatedly express how your actions made them feel.
What This Sounds Like
Start by saying something like, "I wanted to talk to you about the sales meeting last week. I'm very sorry that I wasn't there. I know you were counting on me."
"Do you have a moment to chat about the Green project? It was wrong of me to assume that you hadn't submitted your analysis on time, and I wanted to apologize."
When You Mess Up in Front of Your Team: Bring it Up in Your Next Meeting
If you've mistakenly called out one or several of your employees in front of the whole team, you might want to address it the next time you're all together. This doesn't need to be a drawn-out discussion, but rather a quick acknowledgment before you dive into the business at hand.
You'll, of course, want to address your error with the employee (or employees) in question first, and it wouldn't hurt to ask them if they'd be all right with you correcting your mistake with the team. Most people will be happy to be publicly vindicated, but some may be more comfortable resolving things privately.
What This Sounds Like
"At last week's meeting, I told Taylor that her numbers were inaccurate. That was my mistake, and I owe her an apology. I'm going to mess up sometimes, so when I do, I hope you all feel comfortable talking to me about it."
"I realized that I wasn't very patient on our team call yesterday afternoon, so I wanted to apologize. We should all do our best to communicate with each other constructively and respectfully--myself included. So, if I hurt anyone's feelings, I'm sorry."
I don't know anyone who enjoys apologizing for their mistakes (nor do I know anyone who likes making mistakes, for that matter!) but saying you're sorry when the moment calls for it will only boost your reputation as a great leader.
It'll also make your team feel more comfortable coming to you with concerns as well as taking ownership of their own mistakes. When you provide a good example of making a fair and honest apology, your employees are more likely to replicate your actions--and this ultimately makes your team dynamic stronger.