Saying “I’m Sorry” in a business setting. My take!

My last two posts looked at what constitutes a relationship and what attributes are associated with a relationship.

In this post, I discuss an example which touches upon relationships (and other) issues in a business scenario. Additional elaboration on these issues will be reserved for later posts.

Have you ever done something at work you wished you hadn’t such as being late to a meeting?

Or, failed to do something you wish you had done such as completing a report that was due?

And, when you attempted to rectify the “undesirable” action by saying “I’m sorry (plus an explanation for the “perceived failure”), your boss, or the person to whom the apology was directed looked at you with disdain, displeasure, or disgust.

Even if this scenario hasn’t happened to you, you might still be able to identify with it.

So, what happened?

Well, let’s assume that your “explanation” was, indeed, an attempt to explain the underlying basis for the action that did occur (being late) or the action that did not take place (the absent report) rather than an attempt to simply justify or, in some way, excuse your actions.

In other words, your intent was not to deny, minimize, or avoid responsibility for your actions. Rather, it was an attempt to provide a context for what you did.

The reaction of your boss, however, suggested that he viewed your “I’m sorry” as an excuse and assumed that you were not taking responsibility for your actions.

So, is saying “I’m sorry.” in a business context appropriate?

Well, let’s explore this question from an emotional mastery (basically an emotional intelligence) perspective in the context of building (or maintaining) a relationship.

Basic Concepts:

  • emotional mastery:

The basis of emotional mastery is the idea that emotions are tools which, when mastered like any other tool such as a cell phone, allow you to interact more effectively with your environment and make better inter- and intra-personal decisions.

  • mastering your own emotions:

You master your emotions when you accept your initial emotional reaction as informative, understand the meaning of each emotion (the message), assess your surroundings to see if your initial perception was accurate, and use the assessment to choose how you want to respond to what is going on.

  • relationship:

A relationship is any interaction with another person that has value, is personally meaningful, or personally significant, and which, if not handled appropriately can result in unwanted consequences.

  • mastering the emotions of another person:

You master the emotions of someone else by observing their actions and attempting to understand the emotion they are experiencing. Then, by using this knowledge to address any problematic issues they might have with you, you attempt to facilitate a mutually beneficial change in their behavior by changing their perceptions of their interactions with you.

  • Retrospective mastery:

Managing the emotions of another retrospectively involves assessing the emotion that is displayed and working backward to understand and change the emotion.

  • Prospective mastery:

Determining how you want to be perceived and acting accordingly.

  • Manipulation vs Mastery:

When you opt to facilitate change in another person solely for your own benefit, you are manipulating the other person.  If you are detected, your relationship with that person will deteriorate.

When you opt to master the emotions of another so as to improve the relationship with that person in such a way that the change is mutually beneficial, you are mastering the emotion.

Mastery is productive. Manipulation is counter-productive.

“I‘m sorry”.

By itself, the meaning of this phrase is ambiguous.

For example:

  1. “I’m sorry I didn’t attend the meeting. I was held up in traffic.”
  2. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
  3. “Sorry about that.”

#1 is perceived as an excuse or attempted justification.

#2 is perceived as an expression of condolence and sympathy

3# is perceived as an expression of indifference.

The phrase “I’m sorry.” takes on meaning from:

  • the context in which it is said,
  • the “modifiers” that follow it (the information provided regarding what one is sorry for or about), and
  • the perception of the person receiving the “apology” in terms of the relationship with the “apologizer”, the perceived intent of the “apologizer”, and other factors

The perception of the “receiver” is impacted by many factors including:

  • relationship with the “apologizer”
  • past experiences with, and opinions about, “I’m sorry”
  • how one views any “failure to live up to expectations”
  • and so forth.

Think about this for a moment.  While there may be times when you are able to discern the nature of your boss’s reaction toward you (his perceived “threat”), there will also be times when you can’t know for certain what the basis of this perception is.

So, you may need to adjust your own comments to cover a range of possibilities.

“I’m sorry” plus restitution

When you said, “I’m sorry” and gave your explanation, your boss responded with a look that suggested his displeasure, some form of rebuke or censure, or even mild anger.

Emotional mastery would suggest that your boss perceives your communication as both inappropriate and as a “threat”.  This is the message of “anger”.  The threat, here, might involve:

  • his (or her) view of you as an “irresponsible” employee who wants to make himself feel better by justifying his “failure” to act appropriately (accountability),
  • his view of any “explanation” as a “justification” or “excuse” designed to manipulate him.

When you are attempting to interact with another person and “master” (or validate) their emotions within the context of the relationship you have with that person, you need to insure that you address the (possible) perceived threats that person might be reacting to.

When addressing a perceived threat, think about the concept of restitution.  Restitution is defined as the restoration of something lost or stolen to its proper owner and usually appears in legal settings where a crime has been committed.

While it is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch to include the idea of  restitution with saying “I’m sorry.” as no crime has been committed, here is how I am viewing your apologizing to a skeptical boss.

Your actions are perceived as a violation of how things “should be”.  Your boss expects you to be responsible.  Your actions have violated this expectation and it this expectation  that constitutes the “loss” that you are restoring.

So, your “explanation” now involves your stating how you will make things right or restore equilibrium.

Put another way, your boss isn’t so much concerned about why you did what you did as much as he wants to know what you will do to make everything right now that whatever you did is already done.


I’m sorry.” in a business setting? Yes, with caveats.

It is here that your intentions and how you interact with your boss become important. These are relationship elements.

Caveat #1:  Never just say “I’m sorry.”

The reason here is that, as I noted above, this phrase is like a verbal Rorschach card which, because of its ambiguity, is prone to be misinterpreted based on the biases of the listener. Understanding and accommodating these biases are done in the context of the relationship.

Caveat #2: Be aware of your own intent in saying “I’m sorry.” and clearly communicate that intent.  This is mastering your own emotions.

What are you feeling concerning the “mistake” for which you are apologizing?

Did you unintentionally make the mistake? (feeling guilty and responsible for making it right)

Was the mistake unintended but the result of a situation beyond your control? (feeling content but still responsible for making it right)

And, so forth.

Caveat #3:

Be cognizant of the likely perceptions of your listener.

If you know that your boss expects accountability and responsibility, follow your “I’m sorry.” with a brief delineation of what happened and a clear description about what you will do to make it right.

The “I’m sorry.” communicates your accepting responsibility for any unexpected outcomes.

Your explanation supports the acceptance of responsibility and commits to a plan of action to “make it right”.

Caveat #4: Be cognizant of your relationship with your listener.

How does your listener view you and what expectations does he (or she) have about you.

Tailor your response with these expectations in mind.  For example, how direct can you be with this person.  Do you need to acknowledge  power, gender or seniority differences in your communication?

With these caveats in mind, saying “I’m sorry.” is appropriate because it communicates accepting responsibility and is reinforced by a plan to move forward.

In my next post, I will go into greater detail than this post permitted regarding mastering your own emotions in the context of a relationship (Relationship Tip #1) and mastering the emotions of another person in the context of a relationship (Relationship Tip #2).

And, the post after that will go into greater detail of interacting with another person.  Relationship Tip #3 will address the Basic Relationship Rule and Relationship Tip #4 will look at shooting for a Win-Win but settling for a compromise.

I welcome your comments.