by julia.hanigsberg | October 12th, 2011

Recently a senior executive from one of our suppliers called me. There was one purpose behind the call: to say he was sorry. His company had committed to a deadline the week before and hadn’t made it. I knew about the missed deadline and my team had contingency plans in place. The call took me by surprise. What I got was an apology and one done right. No excuses, an indication that they’d missed the mark and knew how serious that was and how disappointed we must be. He also indicated his firm’s on-going commitment to our business and to doing better for us.

This call happened to take place the week before Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement observed by my family. The tradition dictates that failures between people can only be forgiven by those people—there is no divine absolution. Apology to the person harmed, sincere and complete, is what is required.  So, for example, I apologized to my kids for not being as patient as I could be and for all the times I snapped at them or didn’t listen to them over the course of this year.

The convergence of my out of the blue call from George and a holiday with meaning in my personal life got me to thinking: how important is apologizing in our work life? According to “womeninbiz” blog conflicts at work arise easily because our work relationships are more superficial than with friends or family so we may be less aware when we offend. Furthermore, the nature of hierarchy in work relationships may make hurt feelings more challenging to address.  In workplaces like Ryerson, our diversity requires lots of communication across differences that may also create opportunity for misunderstandings to arise. We value our culture of civility at Ryerson. Key to this culture is respect and trust and the ability to apologize builds both.

What makes for an effective apology? Harvard Business School’s Management Update “The Art of the Apology” offers some Dos and Don’ts among them:

“Find words that are clear and accurate—not provocative. …

Don’t apologize for the wrong thing. …

Don’t think in terms of an “expression of regret.” Instead, your goal should be actually communicating your regret, that is, getting it across to the other person.

‘I want to apologize’ is not an apology. It’s no more an apology than ‘I want to lose weight’ is a loss of weight. Do the work. Deliver a clear, direct apology; don’t hide behind vagueness, circumlocution, or clichés.

You may not be able to control whether your apology is accepted, but you can control its quality. “

Nothing makes us more effective than collaboration. Interpersonal relationships that are broken make teams less effective. I’m going to embrace the possibilities that a good apology brings and the power that “I’m sorry” has to surprise, heal and rebuild trust. I’m challenging you to do the same and looking forward to hearing how it goes.

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