Whether you like it or not, people are a part of life. For the most part, I actually enjoy people. One of the more fulfilling roles I had as a personal trainer, dean, and consultant was helping individuals develop personally and professionally. I also found that I learned a great deal from my interactions with clients and co-workers. Most of my relationships at work were mutually enriching…some, unfortunately, were not.
There were people who seemed to “need” more from me…no matter how much I gave them. Whether it was more direction, attention, or affirmation, some people simply seemed to want more from me than I could ever possibly give. What’s worse is that when I didn’t give it to them, they expected me to feel bad and to offer an apology.
Under certain circumstances, apologies can be quite appropriate. I’ve apologized a lot throughout my career for making errant comments, forgetting to do something I said I would do, or creating more work for someone because of a mistake I made. Apologies are appropriate when we’ve actually done something wrong. In the right situation, a heartfelt apology can help to build or re-build a relationship.
There are times, however, when an apology can reinforce bad behaviors and create rifts in relationships. Often, I was tempted to apologize (the easier course) rather than addressing the skewed perceptions or unrealistic expectations of a colleague (the harder course). Apologies can simply be a sign that you are surrendering to the dysfunction of your organization or a particular work or personal relationship.
For example, early on in my career, I was assigned to a project by my boss’s boss. After working on the project for about a month, my boss became aware of the project and confronted me about my participation. He was frustrated that I had not informed him about the project (despite my inclusion of it in my weekly reports) and that I didn’t seem to understand what his role was in the organization.
Being rather new and not wanting to get off on the wrong foot with my boss, I apologized…but I really shouldn’t have. I didn’t feel like I had done something that warranted an apology. My apology was a strategy to avoid a tougher conversation and to stay in my boss’s good graces.
Maybe I should have done more than include the project in my weekly reports. But, the weekly reports were the vehicle I was given for official communication…why would I apologize if my boss wasn’t reading them? Maybe I should have asked my boss’s boss to assign the project through my boss as opposed to giving it to me directly. But, my boss’s boss was in charge of the whole department…was it really on me to apologize for not directing him to follow the chain of command he had set up? When I apologized, I contributed to the dysfunction of my department. I became part of the problem, not part of the solution.
My point isn’t that I had no culpability or that I couldn’t have handled myself differently (I would certainly have handled that situation differently now). Rather, the point is that an apology was not appropriate in that situation. Instead, I might have acknowledged that my boss felt communication could have been better and asked how He would prefer I communicate next time. I could have recognized his frustration about his boss’s lack of communication and encouraged him to have a conversation with his boss about why the project had been assigned without his knowledge. Acknowledging, questioning, and encouraging would have been constructive in the situation…apologizing was a cop out. It was an escape route.
In some situations apologizing simply reinforces dynamics that diminish organizations and relationships. You aren’t in your position or in a relationship to make a person feel better, but to be better. There will always be people in organizations (and life!) who want you to be at fault because they can’t, won’t or don’t want to address their own issues. Many times, those who need an apology may be feeling less-than confident and need to feel they are doing things correctly. They may simply want to maintain control of a situation or avoid taking blame. Whatever the reason, remember…just because someone feels they need an apology doesn’t mean you have to give them one. You’ll serve your organization and your co-workers better if you focus on being constructive, not apologetic.