The Artful Apology

By Tom Davidson

If you’re trying hard, learning and doing your job, you’re going to make mistakes. If you’re taking any kind of initiative at all, you’re going to step on toes. If you’re changing how things work, you’re going to hurt feelings, and, if you’re making consequential decisions, you’re going to overlook unintended consequences. 

Therefore, as a leader, you’re going to have to apologize from time to time, so you’d better know what makes an artful apology and what doesn’t.


  • Be proactive and timely. The longer you wait, the less the impact of your apology as it will increasingly appear that you are ducking the problem or avoiding ownership.
  • Be sincere and specific about what you’re apologizing for. Rather than giving a blanket apology that is so generic as to imply skirting the real issue (e.g.,“I’m sorry that my actions were taken out of context”), be specific about what you did (e.g., “I’m sorry I didn’t follow through on the promise I made to xyz”).
  • Take personal responsibility for your actions, whether the outcome was intentional or not. Rather than absconding your responsibility (e.g., “I’m sorry but I was only doing what I was told”), try owning what you did in the situation and it’s impact (e.g., “I’m sorry I made the announcement in such a way that it embarrassed you and your team”).


  • Imply blame or fault in others for the issue at hand or any potential misunderstanding of your presumably good intentions. For example, “I’m sorry that you misunderstood me,” or “I’m sorry that I didn’t do a better job of communicating so that you’d understand me.” These variations have the impact of being cagy ways of trying to do two things at once, giving the appearance of an apology while actually making others feel at fault (i.e., You are the one who misunderstood, so it’s not really my fault.).
  • Say “but,” which immediately diminishes what came before that word. “I’m sorry that I overlooked your opinion but I was trying to get things moving as fast as possible.” “I’m sorry that my decision took you by surprise but you should have known that I would take charge of an issue that was this important.” These variations come across as an excuse rather than an apology, so this approach will likely only make things worse.
  • Use the conditional “if” dodge. For example, “I’m sorry if you were offended by what I said,” is to sort the audience by those who felt offended and those who did not. This indicates that the leader is not really sorry at all for what he did, only wishing that the more sensitive individuals will let him off the hook.

Good Examples of a Good Apologies:

Good Examples of Bad Apologies:

Most leaders worry that their credibility will be diminished if they apologize when, in fact, the opposite is more often the case. Be responsible, sincere and timely in your apologies, and you will differentiate yourself as a leader, build trust and recover from you errors much more quickly.

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