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Advice & News

December 21, 2018

Fostering Workplaces Where Apologies and Reconciliation are Commonplace


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There is a lot to be said for a heartfelt apology. If sincerely given, and sincerely received, it can go far in repairing hurt relationships. Yet, we lack good models to demonstrate when apologies are due, how to give them, and how to receive them with grace. We certainly don't see them among public figures who offer apologies strictly as public relations maneuvers to preserve their status and reputation without conveying any sense of sincerity, vulnerability, or perception of consequences.

Workplaces are often not conducive to genuine expressions of apology and attempts at reconciliation, particularly when fear of consequences is too great to allow employees to acknowledge fault in order to repair work relationships. What kind of workplace environment will encourage apologies and reconciliation? What is reasonable to expect of employees to request and offer apologies? Is fostering such an environment something to aspire to, or is it a silly notion?

Let's explore these questions.

What constitutes a genuine apology? We know when an apology isn't sincere. Statements like, "I'm sorry if you were hurt," are indirect and deflect responsibility. Providing excuses and long-winded explanations involves self-justification and back-pedaling. People who are genuinely apologetic offer no excuses, accept responsibility, express remorse, and seek forgiveness with a hope, but no expectation, that the person they offended will respond with acceptance and forgiveness. For example:

"I'm sorry. I was wrong. My behavior was inexcusable, and I feel badly that I hurt you. I can only imagine how hurtful my words and actions felt and can understand if you find it hard to trust me right now. I want to make this right. I only hope that, if not now, then someday soon, you'll find a way to forgive me."

Can apologies be forced or demanded? I have facilitated conversations involving employee conflicts in which the issue of apology comes up. I ask individuals what they need in order to feel whole and return to a better relationship with someone who has hurt them. On occasion, an employee will demand an apology, often taking a hard position that unless they receive an apology they will not be able to move forward in a productive way with the other individual. Some even request that "management" require the other person to apologize. Employers can't require contriteness. I suggest instead that they can certainly request an apology and I can help deliver that message. They can further share how the individual hurt them and why they would appreciate an apology. At the end of the day, however, we can't demand a genuine apology, and it is up to the offending individual to decide whether to apologize and how and when.

How should the recipient of an apology respond? I have also facilitated conversations where the individual offering an apology was disappointed when the recipient gave no clear sign of acknowledgment, much less forgiveness. Just as we can't manufacture apologies, we can't force the recipient's response. Some will respond and forgive spontaneously while others will process the apology before responding, if at all, later. It is gratifying to observe when reconciliation occurs, though it is often after time has passed to allow for cooling off and reflection. Genuine apologies and genuine responses to them take their own time and course.

Why are apologies so difficult? The nature of interpersonal conflict and disagreement is complex and seldom one-sided. We are tough shells to crack and often put up our guard when confronted with information that suggests that we acted badly or were wrong. Even when we accept responsibility, we are challenged to find a path forward that allows us to offer a genuine apology without experiencing consequences out of proportion to the offense created (even though a true apology accepts the consequences, fair or not). The workplace seldom affords space to evaluate where we were wrong or wronged another and to formulate apologies in a manner that also allows those we offended to reflect without overreacting. The hurts we create are either viewed as the cost of doing business and no big deal, or conversely, so egregious and consequential that more punitive measures are deemed necessary. We then lose sight of something as basic as saying "I'm sorry" as a possible remedy. Fear of losing face or status, of embarrassment, or harsh consequences also keep us from apologizing, even when we know it would be good for us and for those we hurt.

How do we create a better way? Since the nature of apology, forgiveness, and reconciliation is intimate, sensitive, and ultimately up to the offender and offended to navigate, perhaps all we can do as leaders and employers is foster environments and circumstances that allow time and space for reconciliation to occur. Whether formally, such as through mediation or similar processes, or informally through daily interactions, we can create a culture that reinforces an understanding that mistakes happen, people bump into one another, and employees must find pathways -- on their own or with help -- to repair hurt feelings and damaged relationships. We can reinforce the need for employees to take ownership of their conflicts and to handle them maturely as an expectation -- if not a strict requirement -- of their daily work life. Some situations, of course, are so egregious that formal discipline seems warranted. Yet, are we too quick to move to punitive measures that threaten the safety and space needed to foster more natural and holistic processes for restoration and reconciliation? More often than not, such processes better serve the workplace and employees seeking resolution.