How do you receive an apology at work? In my own view, I’ve never been very adept at receiving an apology from a colleague. I hope that I’m gracious, display empathy, acknowledge the intent and provide the intended response to whoever is doing the apologizing. But I’m never really certain if I’m accomplishing any of these aspirations.
I perceive myself to be simultaneously empathetic and highly skeptical. When I ponder this dichotomy, I delve into an area of self-examination that becomes too complex for me to comprehend. This is probably the catalyst for my confusion regarding apologies. I’m performing this self-diagnosis while the other person is trying to relate and express their mea culpa. I begin to judge my performance and in turn scrutinize their words, their mannerisms and the space between us. Perhaps an overabundance of formal communication training is also at play here.
I have a vague sense that I’m most likely equally awkward at delivering an apology, but I try my best to apologize only when I feel genuinely responsible for causing another person anguish. But does everyone practice this level of self-regulation? I assume not. I wouldn’t say I’m sorry about this unfortunate assumption either. I believe I arrived at this state via various experiences wherein a person has apologized profusely for something and then repeated the offense at a later date.
Perhaps the ultimate metric by which to evaluate any apology, is actions. Does the person appear truly repentant in speech and subsequently back that up with action? Do they repeat the offense and launch into the same lament at having done so? Do they approach with bended knee, provide an adequate summation of their error, vow never to transgress again and exhibit an awareness of their actions going forward?
Children are terrible at this interaction. They apologize because we tell them, “you better say you’re sorry!” But their grasp on “right” and “wrong” is still developing and to hold them accountable on a deep emotional level for bopping another kid on the head with a Nerf bat is just ludicrous. A child’s apology is all about the adults in the room. An exercise in saving face for one parent as the child of another is crying hysterically in the corner. A platitude performed to instill a sense of responsibility for one’s actions while even the kid knows they can just apologize again the next time they spill orange juice on dad’s computer.
“I SAID I’m sorry!”
Come to think of it, this is probably at the root of my issue with workplace apologies. The cutthroat environment of the corporate world, office politics and the skewed view of heroism as it is exalted in business has left me jaded. Behind every apology, I empirically assume there is a cold, calculated conspiracy of cover your ass-ness evolving right in front of me. This may be the very reason I only say I’m sorry when I’m absolutely certain I’ve screwed a colleague through my actions or words (I’m confident this means I owe a ton of people an apology); I’m so weary of committing the offense of dodging the blame that I’d rather you just deal with whatever I’ve done to offend at the expense of basic civility.
As I mentioned, I’ve had my fair share of expert advice on the matter. I’ve run through the role-play pitting judging language against learning behavior. I know my DISC profile and my Myers-Briggs personality inventory. To be honest, I place high value on this level of self-awareness and understanding of basic human behavior. Though it requires practice and practical experience to derive true value from these studies, I can attest that even a general comprehension of WHY people behave the way they do, alleviates a ton of stress around interactions with coworkers (and customers).
Nevertheless, it’s so very easy to revert to primordial instinct when your coworker asks for a sidebar after a meeting and hems you into a corner of the hallway. What (for the love of Peter, Paul and Mary) do they want now!? OMG… this is about that thing they said the other day that I’ve completely forgotten but secretly plotted their demise over for, oh, about twenty minutes. Ok. Here we go.
“I just wanted to bend your ear about what I said the other day. Nobody asked me to do this, it’s just sat with me all week. Look, I value your input and ideas, and you’ve really stepped up your game lately. My issue is with how you’re approaching this particular project. You seem less invested than usual. But hey, I chose my words poorly in that meeting. I just want to apologize if I made you feel like we don’t appreciate all that you do. You’re a rockstar! So, are we good?”
In other words, “you, you, you, you & you.”
Ok, so it’s me. I’m horrifically jaded.