How many times have you uttered those two words or heard them? None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. We all break trust. We are all insecure about something. We are all human. Few of us want to admit four out of the five.
If avoiding those facts is your objective then read no further because what I'm about to say will only help you if you accept your imperfections and, most importantly, want to grow from them.
Simply saying "I'm sorry" isn't enough. That's especially true if you are trying to hold yourself out as a role model for your organization, and even more so if you want to foster a climate of growth and innovation. That sort of environment will push you and your people to do things that often create collateral damage, no matter how well-intentioned or well-rationalized the objective.
When we do something that is clearly in the wrong we have a very simple choice to make, do we accept our error or not. If you choose not to then you've already read 185 words too many. If you do, then here's how:
The first step in any apology is taking full ownership and accountability for your actions. This means absolutely no excuses or shifting/sharing of the blame. This is all you. Yes, even if in your heart of hearts you believe that it irrefutably isn't. Owning your actions shows that you are sincere in acknowledging that you understand the role you played and that you are ready to accept the repercussions of it, the damage it has caused, and the effort needed to make sure it doesn't happen again.
An apology along the lines of, "I'm sorry, but..." doesn't cut it. If you're sticking a "but" into the apology it instantly devalues it. Instead, just spit it out in clear and unequivocal term by replacing the "but" with an "I." Don't rationalize what you did at this point. This is all yours. Suck it up and own it. I'm not saying someone else may not have played a role, or that you should allow false accusations, but anything you do to deflect warranted blame from yourself will only undermine the apology.
We dislike apologies because they expose us. They reveal our flaws, insecurities, failings, regrets, and lack of awareness. Nobody want's to admit to any of that because it leaves the curtains open for others to see our inner struggles. We all want to project the person we wish we were rather than the flawed people we all really are. However, few things are as endearing and as sincere as a person who has the confidence and the strength to allow their failings to be exposed.
I'm not saying you need to let people walk all over you for a mistake you made, but without letting the person or people you've wronged into this inner sanctum you stand little chance of being perceived as self-aware enough to not only take responsibility but to also work on your shortcomings. This means sharing those shortcomings in order to allow others to help you learn from them. Because, let's face it, if you could do it on your own you already would have.
Make it right. Whatever damage has been done, emotional, tangible, or otherwise, you need to think about how you will set things right. It may well be that the damage is too great to fix. What's done is done. But where we go astray is believing that because the act is over the damage is irreparable. While it's certainly true that you may not be able to rewind and do whatever it is you did over again, there is always opportunity to rebuild professional or personal trust by making a sincere effort to ask the parties affected, how you can do that.
Rather than make blanket statements such as, "Sorry, I cannot do anything to change the past," try, "What can I do to make this right and change the future?" Shift the focus to the intention to rebuild. It's great to promise it won't happen again, but frankly, at this stage, nobody is going to believe that. The fact is that we all judge people based on past behaviors. And this may not be the first time you've had to apologize--perhaps for the same exact thing! Your only avenue back to trust is to deliver what the person(s) you're apologizing to need in order to rebuild. That's not your call. It's theirs.
Be Transparent Going Forward
Ultimately, if you get through the first three steps, and you're given another chance, you have a very simple choice; stick it out and attempt to earn back trust, something that will take time and that there's no guarantee of, or stick your tail between your legs and move on while trying to forget the past. The former is the path to self-improvement and growth, the latter is the path to stagnation and the very likely repetition of the behaviors that led to an apology to begin with.
If you chose to stick it out make it a point to operate in-the-clear by communicating and showing an awareness of how important transparency and openness is. If you want me to trust you again you'd better be willing to illuminate your darker side just as brightly. Yes, that's not pleasant and it's always much easier to just ignore the behaviors that underlie past mistakes, but those same behaviors will always come back to haunt you. It's sort of like a payment plan; take the hit and pay now or take out a mortgage on your future and keep paying the price for it indefinitely.
There's one last thing about an apology that's rarely discussed and often lost in this sort of conversation. An apology is not only something you do for the person or people you've wronged, it's also something you do for yourself. Each of the four steps above seems to focus on seeking forgiveness from others. While that's soothing, and what we naturally want to do, it's fleeting. How others perceive you is ultimately far less important than how accurately you perceive yourself. No apology is complete until you own up to it in your own mind, accept the damage done, learn from it and forgive yourself.
None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. We all break trust. We are all insecure about something. But we do not all grow from it. If that's not what you were hoping to hear, well...I'm sorry.
Want more? Check out this link to a detailed article about "How to Apologize" on MindTools.com