When to Apologize

Recently I was confronted with a leader who abdicated responsibility for the pain caused by a decision the group had made.

I went to talk with the leader of the group to point out that a decision was made and that others and myself were feeling hurt and left out. As the leader of this group has experience leading other groups, I thought there would be a recognition of the hurtful impact of the group’s decision; however, that didn’t happen. Instead, the more I repeated the message that the group’s actions had caused pain, the more the leader repeated that the group’s actions were not intentional. Eventually, I sensed the leader giving me a shoulder shrug, and I walked away feeling like many women do when others don’t take responsibility for the impact of their actions.

I have shared several times that as women we need to stop the practice of apologizing all the time, like when we are late for a meeting or when we interrupt someone to ask for their help. While I still believe this wholeheartedly, there are a few places where I believe we should say “I am sorry” and this is one of those times.

I’m not sure at what point in our lives we first learned that saying “it wasn’t intentional” or “I didn’t mean it” would get us off the hook from taking responsibility for the impact of our actions; however, my guess is at a pretty young age. I remember being around five years old when I was playing at a family friend’s home and I broke a ceramic teapot. It was innocent enough as we were told the teapot was an heirloom and to be careful. However, I was little and my clumsy friend bumped into me as I was pouring the lukewarm tea into cups and I dropped the teapot on the table. It shattered into a million pieces.

Immediately, I said, “I didn’t mean to do it. It’s not my fault.” My friend didn’t want to take responsibility either and ran to the other room to let our parents know that she wasn’t the one who broke the teapot. My dad came into the room, listened to my story and suggested that even when we don’t intend to hurt someone, our actions may very well do so and the nice thing to do is to apologize for hurting the other person. I did just that and have tried to use this example as a good gauge of when to apologize.

Take Responsibility and Apologize

This recent experience had me wondering what it means to take responsibility for our actions. I suppose it starts with the initial recognition that our actions have some role in everything we do. If our actions result unintentionally in someone else’s benefit, I think we all would agree that it’s nice to be recognized for our impact in that situation. However, when the impact isn’t positive, we suddenly don’t want the attention or responsibility for our actions. If we truly take responsibility for our actions, then when we find out that our actions hurt another person, we don’t look to blame others; we don’t make excuses (not even saying “It wasn’t intentional”); and we don’t twist the facts. Instead, we acknowledge that the hurt exists because of our actions and we apologize for hurting the other person. If this is a continuing hurt, we need to take steps to stop our actions and apologize.

Take Responsibility at Work

Just like in our personal lives, our decisions and actions at work not only impact our own performance and success; they also impact our coworkers, teams, bosses, and stakeholders. It can seem more risky to take responsibility at work, yet it will show that you are self-aware and willing to be held accountable for your actions and their impact.

  • Some examples of how this may play out at work are:
    You find out that an email you sent hurt someone, so you apologize to the person and determine how to change your messages going forward.
  • You overlook the deadline for work you are doing on a larger project as your staff didn’t submit the data to you in time for you to remember there was a deadline. As a result, the deadlines for another group have to be shifted because of your delay. So, you avoid the temptation to point the finger of blame at your team, acknowledge the impact of your failure to calendar the deadline yourself, and apologize to the other group for the impact of your actions.
  • You continually miss deadlines or essential project parameters and decide it’s time to take responsibility, so instead of pretending that it is all out of your control, you apologize and ask for help with better managing deadlines.

In an article entitled, “Why Some People Own Mistakes and Others Don’t”, the author suggests that “when you believe that your behavior can change, you are more likely to be willing to admit
responsibility. A big reason why you are able to admit fault is that you recognize that once you admit what you have done wrong, you can work to make it better, and so you are not threatened by admitting mistakes. People who do not believe that they can change are stressed by admitting their mistakes, because they believe that those mistakes say something fundamental about who they are as a person.”


I guess what surprised me about my recent encounter with a leader who was unwilling to take
responsibility and apologize is that they either didn’t believe the behavior of the group could change or they were not willing to make sure the group changed its behavior. This leaves me wondering how much richer the relationships could have been if the leader took responsibility, apologized and worked to lead a more inclusive group.

Work with me

Are you struggling to understand how to move forward after feeling the shoulder shrug from someone else? Or, maybe you’re the one who has shrugged your shoulders and you’re finally ready to make a change. Either way, I can help you move forward in a healthy way. Click here and schedule a time to talk.

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