Tina Lewis Rowe

Insights, Information & Inspiration

Apologies That Mean Something

Self Indulgent Apologies

“I’m sorry. What more can I say?”

“Yep, go ahead and blame me. It was my fault. I’m an idiot. Kick me if you want.”


“OK. I admit it. I’m only human and I made a mistake. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry I reacted like I did, but you made me do it.”

“I’m so, so, SO sorry! This will never happen again. I swear!”

Saying “I’m sorry” isn’t always enough–and often isn’t anything. Flimsy apologies are often used in an attempt to get off the hook or merely to mouth acceptable words without any real significance. Often the tone is flippant, dismissive, irritated or resentful. But, what about that last example? It sounds sincere, doesn’t it? It also sounded sincere the five other times over the last month that the employee did the same thing and apologized profusely.

Using the analogy of domestic violence, “I’m sorry” is usually the honeymoon time that starts another cycle of abuse. In workplaces “I’m sorry” is often just the brief time before yet another problem behavior and/or performance situation.

In one personnel action I reviewed, I noted that the employee apologized for her actions over fifty times in six statements and interviews. I also noted that the supervisor referred to the apology as if it was mitigation for the bad behavior. “My recommendation is based, in part, on the fact that this employee apologized for her actions and has promised she will not repeat them.”

At one point the employee apologized to a coworker, but the coworker wouldn’t accept it and said she didn’t believe her. The supervisor wrote, “I think in this case Lisa did all she could do to apologize and I am disappointed that Sandy won’t accept it in the spirit in which it was given.” (I think Sandy knew the spirit in which it was given!)

Clarifying apologies as a supervisor: If you are a supervisor or manager, there is a temptation to accept even a sullen apology as a way to end a discussion about bad behavior or performance. Don’t do it! Be honest about the tone you are hearing, or the fact that an apology has not resulted in changed behavior in the past. Follow even sincere sounding apologies with these questions: “What are you going to do to make this better, right now? And, what are you going to do to keep it from happening again?”

Repentance, in any context, is worthless if the person doesn’t purposefully turn away from the wrong thing. As a supervisor you can help make that happen by insisting that the employee tell you what he or she will do instead of the wrong thing.

Dealing with apologies as a co-worker: If you are a coworker being given an apology that sounds shallow to you, civil honesty is also the best approach. “Beth, I hear what you are saying, but I don’t feel you mean it because you continue to treat me and others this way. Even your tone is more like you are being forced to say it. So, tell me…what are you going to do to make this right, and what specific things are you going to do to keep yourself from doing this again?”

If he or she has an adequate response, at least you will know the person is sincerely trying. If not, you are correct to not fake an acceptance of a fake apology.  Try this response: “I want to believe you, so I’ll wait to see if what you say is backed up by what you do. That’s when I’ll feel I can accept your apology as sincere.”

If you need to apologize: Say you’re sorry. Say what you are going to do right now to try to make things right. Say what you are going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Live up to it.

Don’t apologize to keep someone happy, when you don’t really mean it, and don’t apologize when you have done nothing wrong and are only trying to keep the peace. Say you are sorry for the things you truly would do differently if you could, and that you feel badly about. But, if you should apologize, make it have significance. Hopefully you won’t need to apologize very often!

I’m sorry this article is so long. I’ll make it right by stopping now, and next time I’ll edit my posts to keep them shorter for easier reading. I promise!

February 12th, 2009 Posted by | Challenging and Problematic People, Life and Work, Personal and Professional Development, Supervision and Management | 6 comments


  1. GREAT POST! I am using this tomorrow for a case where I know the person is going to apologize….again! Thanks!

    Comment by Jimbo | February 12, 2009

  2. Denise told me to tell you she would like to believe your apology about the long article but she’ll have to wait and see if you really stick with it in the next one. I’m just writing what I was told to say. M.C.

    Comment by Mike | February 12, 2009

  3. Tina says:
    Thanks for the comment, Jimbo. I hope the thoughts are helpful. Let me add that if you think the person apologizing sincerely wants to do better but is simply not able to do it for mental, emotional or physical reasons or because of lack of knowledge or skills, help them keep their promises.

    If it is a job performance issue, make sure your employee knows how to do the job and has the practice necessary to stay proficient, as well as a work situation that supports good work.

    If it is a behavior issue, make sure there is nothing going on that creates temptation, hardship or a trap. And, either way, make sure the employee knew to come to you about problems. If all of that is OK, you can be more stern about repeated apologies and promises to do better. It may be time for the person to do better somewhere else.

    Comment by TLR | February 12, 2009

  4. Tina says: Mike, for some reason I don’t believe you–and I can’t even hear your tone of voice. Don’t make me call Phyllis! 🙂

    Comment by TLR | February 12, 2009

  5. I also think it’s important for supervisors to accept apologies when they are sincere and people are going to try to do better. If you apologize to one of our supervisors he says, “That and two fifty will get you a Big Mac and fries.” He never accepts an apology and says it’s too late once an apology is needed. Don’t you think there is a time when apologies are OK and should be accepted as the truth?

    Comment by Learning | February 16, 2009

  6. Tina says: Thank you for your comment, Learning. I do agree that when someone apologizes and is clearly going to do something different in the future, or is going to work to make things right now, (or if the matter is relatively minor) a supervisor should be courteous about it and accept it with appreciation for the employee’s willingness to apologize.

    But, some things cannot be made right with an apology, and the employee should know that. Maybe those are the kind of things your supervisor is referring to. Or, is your supervisor not very effective in other ways either? That may be just another one of those ways! I’m sorry you have to deal with it, and hope you have very few times you need to apologize! Thank you again for commenting on this and other posts recently.

    Comment by TLR | February 16, 2009

Leave a comment