Mistakes happen—at work and everywhere else. Messing up isn’t a sign that you’re a bad human or that you aren’t skilled at your job. Even leaders, bosses, and managers make mistakes— what matters is how to move forward, and that starts with an apology.
If you’re wondering how to apologize for a mistake professionally, you aren’t alone! Saying sorry at work is intimidating. You want to make sure your coworkers understand that you’re coming from a sincere, genuine place — and that takes some serious communication skill!
Here’s a bit more on why apologizing at work is so important, the six ingredients of a good professional apology, and how to deliver it in person or remotely.
Why apologizing for mistakes at work matters
Apologizing is part of healthy communication. A great apology—followed up by action—shows that you’re willing to be honest, humble, and vulnerable. It shows that you want to build trust and respect with your coworkers—not win arguments or be right at all costs.
Unsurprisingly, apologies in the workplace are more often expected from women (studies reveal females say “sorry more often), and by managers from their employees. But research shows that the less expected an apology is, the more effective it is. When a manager or male team member subverts that dynamic and offers a sincere, professional apology, it can be perceived as even more impactful.
Mistakes don’t need to hold you back. If you focus on apologizing professionally, they can actually push you to grow. Apologizing at work is key to helping you build (or repair) strong, trusting relationships, showing your colleagues that your connection is worth repairing.
6 ingredients for a professional apology
Not every “I’m sorry” is created equal. In fact, if that’s all you’re saying, don’t expect your apology to have the effect you want.
A 2016 analysis of two psychological studies found that there are six key elements an apology should have to be most effective, described here by Association for Psychological Science. If you’re wondering how to make your professional apology count, include as many of these not-so-secret ingredients as you possibly can.
1. Express of regret
Start by confirming that you regret what happened. Whether the mistake happened because of poor communication, poor execution, or a failure in judgment, the other party needs to understand that you’re not happy with the outcome, either.
Example: “I’m so sorry I was late for the meeting.This was a terrible day for that to happen, and I know how important this client relationship is.”
2. Explain how the mistake occurred
Give some brief context for what happened. But keep it neutral! This isn’t the time to make it about yourself or offer excuses.
Example: “My alarm didn’t go off and I woke up late, which meant I didn’t leave early enough to account for traffic.”
3. Take responsibility
You’re human, and this time, you messed up. Unless you work at a nuclear power plant, it’s probably not the end of the world! All you can do now is own up to the mistake.
Example: “I had a few chances to prevent this from happening, and I failed at all of them. I should have had a backup plan, like setting a second alarm or leaving the house earlier, to make sure I could wake up in time for such an important meeting.”
4. Be clear and succinct
Now’s the time to say (or repeat) the actual words “I’m sorry.” Because you’ve provided context and taken responsibility, your words will be much more powerful.
Example: “Again, I’m sorry about this. I hope you can accept my apology.”
5. Suggest concrete action
What’s next? After you apologize, share how you can repair the situation. Then, verify that your colleagues agree with your proposed course of action..
Example: “I think it would be a good idea for me to book a quick follow-up with the client to re-share all my main points and catch up on anything I missed. If that sounds good to you, I can reach out right now.”
6. Ask for forgiveness
Close out your apology by visualizing a way to move forward. Emphasize that you care about your relationship with the other person and repairing that is your priority.
Example: “We have a great working relationship. I hope you’ll forgive my mistake so we can move forward without compromising that.”
How to apologize professionally in person
In general, apologizing face-to-face is easier.
When we’re speaking directly to another person, a staggering amount of communication happens through body language and tone—according to one study, by as much as much as 93%. All that extra context leaves less space for misinterpretation.
Here are some tips for a professional in-person apology.
Know the power of body language
If you aren’t mindful of the cues your face, body, and intonation are sending, it can undermine your apology instead of strengthening it.
To ensure you’re expressing sincerity and trustworthiness, don’t cross your arms. And be sure to speak calmly and look the person directly in the eye.
Apologize right away
It’s important to take control of the narrative by apologizing immediately. The longer you wait, the more space you give the other person to make assumptions about why you did what you did.
If you’re in a hybrid situation where you need to schedule a future in-person apology, acknowledge why you’re setting up the meeting—and a brief text or verbal apology as you do so.
Try using language like, “I’m so sorry that happened. Could we please set up a quick meeting next week to debrief?”
Make sure you aren’t inconveniencing the other person with your apology, especially if it’s someone you report to.
For example, don’t interrupt the flow of a meeting to apologize profusely for being late or book your 1:1 apology meeting without consulting the other person’s calendar. These small details matter.
How to apologize for a mistake at work remotely
In our remote-first age, in-person apologies are an increasingly rare luxury. But thanks to the miracle of video conferencing, a face-to-face apology is still an option for many remote teams.
While it’s not quite the same as a true in-person apology, you still get the benefits of facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, so many of the same guidelines apply.
Unfortunately, a video call isn’t always an option. In those situations, you’ll probably apologize over a written channel like email or Slack.
And if you just feel like you can apologize better in writing, that’s okay too! If you tend to freeze up or get nervous in stressful situations, an email apology gives you more time and space to think over your words.
Here are some tips on how to apologize for a mistake at work by email or another text-centric channel.
Choose your channel carefully
Slack or another professional chat tool is okay for a quick “oops” between colleagues.
But definitely send a formal email for bigger mistakes. This is especially important if the mistake affected outcomes for others, or involved a personal error in judgment, such as not being honest about a negative outcome.
If an email doesn’t feel right, but video isn’t feasible, consider a phone call. That might be easier for the other person to handle, compared to a full cameras-on meeting.
If possible, at least offer a video or audio chat and see if the other person is receptive. If not, that’s the time to follow up with your carefully thought-out email apology.
Be even more clear and explicit in a written apology, even if it seems like overkill. Remember, you are losing a lot of important cues when you communicate in writing.
That means you need to take every possible step to make sure your message is clear. Include as many of those six magic ingredients as you possibly can!
Written apologies tend to feel more formal than ones delivered in person or by video. But that doesn’t mean you need to be scripted or robotic!
The best apologies sound like they came from you, not a template or PR team. As long as you follow these tips for a meaningful, professional apology, it's okay to speak in your own authentic voice.
After your apology
Apologies are essential to turning mistakes into better work and stronger relationships—but they’re only the first step!
Research has found that, on their own, apologies don’t do very much. In fact, participants in one study reacted better to an imagined apology than the reality of receiving one. Unless followed up with concrete action, even the most professional of apologies are useless. They can even be harmful, eroding trust in your words and making you seem insincere.
That’s not to say you should throw up your hands and forget about apologizing altogether! It just means you need to be ready to take real steps after apologizing to prevent future issues.
Harvard Business Review recommends letting your boss or manager know what steps you’ll be taking to prevent the mistake from reoccurring. Then, as you implement your plan, keep them updated— it can really help you progress in your career.
Break down your defense mechanisms
Apologizing after you’ve made a mistake is a great start. But what’s preventing you from working better in the first place?
Get out of your own way and learn about how to break down some of the most common defense mechanisms that hold back your productivity. Check out our blog post on the topic.
Good or bad, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Find us on Twitter (@trello)!