Humility is a virtue. Certainly some would argue that, as a group, lawyers are especially prone to being “humility challenged.” So it may come as no surprise that owning up to a mistake at work can be an especially difficult task in the legal profession. Stanford management professor Robert I. Sutton offers advice about how to deliver a truly effective apology in his book, Good Boss, Bad Boss. Consider the following three points the next time you find that you missed your target at work.
1. Own It
This is essential. When you make a mistake at work, take ownership of the mistake. Perhaps more important, take ownership of the mistake in its entirety. Don’t shift the blame to others. For example, don’t say, “I’m sorry. I thought Debbie was going to assemble the appendix.”
And don’t combine your apology with an excuse. For example, don’t say, “I’m sorry the brief was late but I was waiting for the appendix.” Omit the word “but” from every apology. Another way to think about this rule is that everything that precedes the word “but” is rendered meaningless. So, in the previous example, the only thing the listener hears is, “I was waiting for the appendix.” The listener never hears the “I’m sorry.”
This does not mean, of course, that you can’t explain the events leading to the error or address the other causes of the problem. But save that “explanation” for later. The first priority should be communicating the message—that you are, in fact, sorry for your mistake.
2. Don’t Overdo It
The apology should be commensurate with the mistake. A junior associate who calls an important client, “Dude” during a teleconference does not need to explain the reasoning behind his perhaps-too-casual language. A simple, “Oops. I’m sorry about that” will suffice. On the other hand, if the same junior associate arrives 10 minutes after a hearing has begun, he should consider whether a more formal or serious apology is more appropriate.
Context is key. When the mistake is a big one, the apology should be in person if at all possible. On the other hand, there is no need to interrupt the managing partner’s already over-booked day to give a face-to-face apology for a minor typographical error. The perfectionist personality type always seems to struggle with this one, but it’s important not to apologize for things of minimal consequence. Perspective is key.
3. Offer a Solution
Employees who offer a solution for the problem that they’ve caused come out looking like problem-solvers—a positive attribute in any workplace. If you aren’t able to solve the problem, at least explain what steps you’ve taken in your efforts to try to solve it. Just dumping the problem onto another person (particularly your boss) is not a good idea. At the same time, make it clear that you intend to ensure that the problem will not occur again.
Be clear that you won’t make the same mistake twice. Most critical, though, is to not make the same mistake again. No matter how brilliant the apology, words are not likely to help where there is an ongoing pattern of error.
And Remember . . .
At the end of the day—at work and at home—sincerity is key. Lawyers especially can be very good at picking up the absence of sincerity, even where the words would otherwise seem to fit the bill. If you are truly sorry, say so. And if you’re not, consider apologizing anyway—it may be an important step towards mending a fence you didn’t otherwise know was broken.
About the Author
Molly DiBianca (@MollyDiBi) is an attorney with Young Conaway Stargett and Taylor LLP in Wilmington, DE, and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board. She can be reached at (302) 571-5008.
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