Mea Culpa: Acknowledging and Correcting Your Wrongs

How sincerely and effectively do you offer up a mea culpa when you’ve done wrong?

Do you acknowledge it when something is your fault, and then try to correct the wrong?

We’ve all done it. Usually unwittingly, we’ve offended a colleague or let down someone in our personal or professional life. We can also wreak havoc with a stranger’s day – be it inadvertently kicking another swimmer in your lane or bumping into another person innocently networking at a business or social event, only to watch that glass of wine cascade down the front of that person’s outfit.

What steps do you take to try to make things right when you’ve messed up?

Let’s start by considering what doesn’t work, and your experience when you’re on the receiving end of a wrong. Are you receptive to the other person  articulating an apology that focuses on his or her feelings and intentions? Think of how you feel when someone prefaces an apology with any of the following.

I didn’t know … I didn’t intend … There’s a good reason … Everyone else does it … I couldn’t help it

It’s likely this such phrases will do little to appease you. Heidi Grant Halvorson, PhD, is the author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently and Associate Director of Columbia University Business School’s Motivation Science CenterGrant Halvorson advises that, when we mess up, the recipient of our blunder does not want to hear about us. Rather than talking about ourself or why we made the mistake or faux pas, she recommends we turn our attention to how we’ve impacted the other person: how is the person feeling, and what does s/he need from us in order to move past this mistake?

She also suggests that an effective apology can not only resolve a quandary, heal hurt feelings and foster forgiveness; it can also improve relationships. Think about it: while you’re unlikely to appreciate a colleague missing a key deadline, who doesn’t value the integrity implied in a straightforward acknowledgement of wrongdoing? It’s even better when the person who’s done wrong displays genuine empathy for the impact, and takes action to redeem a situation gone bad.

The University of Illinois’ Jennifer Robbennoit, a professor of law and psychology, takes it a step further; her studies have shown that apologies can potentially aid in the resolution of legal disputes. Robbennoit notes that, while apologies flaunt conventional legal wisdom, an apology can provide wounded parties a sense of justice and satisfaction that promotes settlements out of court and generally reduced financial demands.

Back to your hopefully litigation-free mistake, now, and Halvorson’s common sense approaches to presenting your apology in a manner reflecting your relationship with the person you’ve wronged.

You’ve let down a friend, loved one or colleague? You hurt someone you care about, or unintentionally blindsided a colleague by leaving him/her out of the loop on a shared endeavour. Make sure you understand the other person’s perspective and convey empathy; Halvorson suggests something along the lines of, “I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate all your efforts. You must feel awful, and that’s the last thing I want.”

Own your mistake;  express genuine concern over the discomfort or pain you’ve caused

You’ve missed a deadline, or failed your team in some way? Halvorson found that, in team settings, it’s not compensation or even empathy people are seeking. Instead, she suggests, your colleagues will want an acknowledgement that you’ve violated rules and norms, even if they’ve never been articulated as such. Halvorson offers approaching this by saying, for example, “I have a responsibility to my colleagues/family/community, and I should have known better.” Apologise for having let down the people who count on you, she suggests.

 Find out what people need from you in order to move forward

You’ve caused offense or harm to a stranger, or his/her property? Restore balance with an apology and redeeming action, which can take the form of an apology for poor behaviour, or an offer of compensation to pay for dry cleaning. I can tell you from personal experience that a heartfelt apology and offer of compensation go a long way.

At a conference earlier this year, I was among a crowd of happy delegates who hopped on a bus departing for an off-site social reception. Wearing my favourite Tahari suit, I was horrified on exiting the bus to find I’d acquired a grease stain down the right hand side of the skirt of this (until then) pale pink number. Hoping that I wasn’t overly obvious in my state of upset, I approached the bus driver for a contact number and then made my way to the relative privacy of a bathroom, to phone that contact and seek some form of resolution. I also wanted to ensure that no one else encountered the same issue on the return trip.

Imagine my gratification when one of our hosts, who had been keeping an eagle eye on the reception, followed me into the bathroom to explain that the bus belonged to her institution. She apologised simply and sincerely for the situation – which was clearly not of her making – and told me that I must, of course, bill her institution for either dry cleaning. Or, if the stain was permanent, the institution would pay for a new suit.

Our host’s genuine concern and integrity were all I needed

I walked away from our conversation with great respect for this lady. On return to the hotel that evening, I arranged for the suit to be cleaned and, while it came out slightly imperfectly, I wouldn’t think of billing our host. Instead, I choose to think of the suit as having acquired increased character.

Speaking of character, I later learned that a grease-stained suit was but a speck of dust in comparison with a number of other challenges our host had faced that particular day. A key contributor to her organisation’s C-suite, she was simulataneously dealing with some significant institutional challenges, and my already high estimation of her increased a thousandfold.

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