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Depending on the situation, apologizing to your coworkers can feel anywhere from mildly awkward to devastatingly mortifying. But whether you're taking responsibility for a major project mistake or for grabbing the last blueberry scone from the break room, asking for forgiveness—at some point—is unavoidable. "A person should always apologize when they're in the wrong, but different situations call for different type of apologies," says Myka Meier, author of Business Etiquette Made Easy ($13.99, amazon.com). "Some require a resolution or solution based on a mistake made, while others simply involve empathy and a clear understanding of what the other person is thinking or feeling. A delay in meeting a deadline, raising one's voice, or even 'stealing' someone's salad dressing from the office fridge require an apology of some kind."
Minimize the thorniness of a workplace apology by saying you're sorry in the correct situations, using the appropriate language, and—most importantly—being honest. "You should take responsibility for a mistake you made and own it," says Meier. "It can be hard to do, but it's important to let the other person or people know that you're sincere and accepting of the fact that you made a mistake."
Reserve your "I'm sorry" for real blunders.
If you want your workplace apologies to feel truly sincere, save "I'm sorry" for honest mistakes. "I often find people misuse the word 'sorry' by often saying it when they need to add in something to a meeting—'Sorry, I just had one comment'—or to clarify something—'Sorry, can you repeat that?'" says Meier. "One of the biggest differences in apologizing in an office setting today versus in the past is that an apology was often a way people showed submissiveness or deference to colleagues, or even accommodation to how someone else did their work. It also became a common term to use when you didn't mean or need to apologize at all, but it became habitual in your vocabulary and in the office in general." Adding "I'm sorry" into situations where you don't actually need to apologize weakens the term—and your power. "I find that overusing the word sorry when it's not relevant can take power and authority away from your voice," says Meier. "Instead of using 'sorry' in the above instances, I would recommends simply saying, 'excuse me.'"
When you don't need to feel sorry, try a different phrase.
Replace your go-to with more intentional and thoughtful phrases that don't minimize your contributions. "It's important for people not to reflexively say 'I'm sorry' when there are terms they can use that convey the same meaning and message—but doesn't diminish their own self-confidence in their abilities," says Meier. "You can avoid using 'I'm sorry' by owning the mistake and sharing the solution: 'That didn't go as planned, but'—and then state how you will resolve the situation. If you're apologizing because something has been delayed, instead of saying you're sorry it's late, you can thank someone for their patience while you finish the project and let them know when they can expect it." When you need your boss' attention, try "Are you free now? I wanted to talk to you about," instead of "I'm sorry to bother you," and when a colleague shows you a new Excel shortcut, trade "I'm sorry I didn't know that" for "Thank you for letting me know." Even highlighting someone else's blunder doesn't require you to say you're sorry. "When telling someone that they made a mistake," says Meier, "don't apologize for pointing out their error, but be more positive by saying, 'Let's look at this from a different point of view.'"
When you realize you've made a mistake, be upfront about it.
Whether you emailed a potential client with the wrong version of your proposal or accidentally insulted your manager's alma mater, smooth the situation over as soon as possible with a candid apology. "What's important is that you recognize the mistake made and acknowledge it clearly, directly, and politely," says Meier. "The best thing you can do is apologize as soon as you recognize you were wrong and do it with genuine tone, body language, and wording—one without the other may not come across sincere." When necessary, give your colleagues a chance to speak, too. "Let the other person know that you understand their point of view by using the word 'I,' says Meier. "For example: 'I understand why you feel that way and I'm sorry.'"
Have a plan for correcting (and preventing).
An apology means more if you can share a plan for how you'll prevent yourself from repeating the mistake—by setting multiple reminders so you aren't late for the budget meeting, enforcing a personal policy of not talking politics in the office, or double-checking email addresses before you hit send. "It's important that you show that you learned from the mistake and either come up with a solution for the situation or mention how you can avoid a similar mistake in the future," says Meier. "Sometimes even saying 'I'm terribly sorry, it won't happen again,' is needed." Then move on—no apology gift necessary—unless you've made an especially serious misstep. "Some workplace errors may have legal ramifications," says Meier. "Don't be afraid to speak with someone in Human Resources if you think you need to."