Leadership Matters: 4 Mistakes You Make When Apologizing

young woman in red and white striped shirt looking guilty
By Stacey Hanke

2 minutes

An honest ‘I’m sorry’ can build stronger relationships within your team.

Apologies are something we love to receive and hate to give. And especially as a leader, they are tough. They require a great deal of humility, which challenges your pride and ego. Apologies are an open admission of failure or wrongdoing, but when delivered with sincerity, they hold power within your team.

Unfortunately, too many leaders give superficial apologies loaded with excuses and blame. Apologizing for the sake of apologizing is ingenuine and an insult to those wronged. If you want to be taken seriously in your organization, it’s important to know why an apology is necessary and to deliver it in a way that’s heartfelt and honest.

Here are four ways you are apologizing wrong and how to make sure you don’t make these mistakes in your next “I’m sorry.”

1. Not Owning the Mistake

Placing blame or trying to justify your actions will diminish the power of your apology and hurt your credibility. Using excuses to justify your actions or shortcomings will only intensify your employee or colleague’s feelings of rejection, animosity, anger or pain. Instead, simply own your mistake. Acknowledge what you should have done differently and commit to making a change in the future.

2. Not Carefully Considering Your Words

Before rushing into an apology, consider how the receiver will interpret what you’re saying and how you plan to say it. What we say when admitting a mistake can affect the trust we establish in the relationship moving forward. If you don’t consider your words carefully, you can add insult to injury and put your connection in greater jeopardy than the initial mistake.

3. Leaving Out the Specifics

Know what you are apologizing for before you do. Don't rush into an apology without all the facts. The person affected needs to know what you are apologizing for. It allows you to elaborate on the reason for your mistake and acknowledge greater ownership.

4. Making It Impersonal

The method of apology is as important as the message itself. Recognize when a mistake requires a face-to-face admission and don’t rely on technology to do your heavy lifting. Look your team member in the eye and apologize. If face-to-face interactions aren’t possible, pick up the phone. Let the offended person hear your voice and acknowledge your sincerity. Don’t hide behind a screen.

All of us make mistakes. Acknowledging those mistakes while taking ownership demonstrates responsibility and maturity as a leader. Apologies allow us to build stronger, more trusting relationships with those around us. Those interactions—and the opportunity to learn from our missteps—also help us grow as professionals and in our roles as leaders. Owning your mistakes and provide a great example for your team to follow suit.

Stacey Hanke is the founder and communication expert of Stacey Hanke Inc., Chicago. She is the author of Influence Redefined: Be the Leader You Were Meant to Be, Monday to Monday and Yes You Can! Everything You Need From A to Z to Influence Others to Take Action. Hanke and her team have delivered thousands of presentations and workshops for leaders of Fortune 500 companies, including Coca-Cola, Nationwide, FedEx, Kohl’s and AbbVie. Learn more about her team and company at and connect with her on Twitter, @StaceyHankeInc.

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