What? Me? Apologize?

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“Well sure, I’ll apologize. I’m sorry you’re such a jerk.” Whoops, that kind of apology won’t help matters.  But a real sincere one, given freely with a commitment to change has provided the turning point in many a dispute.

Is it realistic to expect an apology in a workplace dispute? Will either side ever be willing to admit wrong and would they dare to do so under the threat of a lawsuit or formal complaint? Realistic fears, but not an unrealistic possibility.

Few people will admit, without reservation, that the other person is one hundred percent right, but this still leaves room for a portion of your actions which you do regret. Any time there is a dispute that has resulted in each side retreating to their corners, unable to work it through, and headed for or resulting in, the filing of complaints or lawsuits, there has been a failure somewhere.  More likely than not there have been multiple failures along the line.  With the help of a mediator, each side can look at their own actions and when they do so sincerely, the possibility of an apology can emerge.

In a recent mediation, the attorney representing the employer opened his remarks with an apology to the employee.  After hearing what the employee had to say, he said that he was the attorney hired to protect the company, but that even so, he heard and understood the pain the company’s actions had caused this employee.  He apologized for it getting so far that the employee felt he had to file a lawsuit to get their attention and he apologized that the company had not worked with the complainant to find a resolution sooner.  (The employee had been rebuffed in his attempts to resolve the matter internally.) He told the complainant that the company was sincere in its desire to find resolution and encouraged the employee to tell him more about what had happened from his perspective.  Although the employee would have liked to have heard a complete apology for all of the company’s actions, the apology for the procedural frustrations the employee had experienced was appreciated, negotiations were commenced and the matter settled to the satisfaction of both sides.

Apologies from employees are powerful as well. “I realize now that I could have handled it differently” has been the turning point in more than one mediation in the workplace and resulted in resolutions both sides could accept.

An employer’s apology, or an employee’s, when not heartfelt, will go nowhere.  The power of an apology lies in its sincerity and in its motivation.  It cannot be given simply because it will “soften” the other side.  A false apology is easily revealed and will do more harm than good.  But a sincere apology given from the heart regarding actions that might have been different is what makes mediation different from litigation and is what opens doors to creative resolution that works for both sides.  A mediator can help find the opportunities for sincere apologies and help the parties hear and acknowledge each other.  By using the mediator as a sounding board and a coach, the opportunity for “sorry” need not go awry.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Tom Melancon March 21, 2011 at 9:53 am

I agree Dee, an apology in a workplace dispute, if done sincerely can be very powerful. I co-mediated a team dipute a couple of years ago where everyone in the office was convinced that someone had to leave. After one of the members gave a very heartfelt apology the icy atmosphere in the room began to melt and the team went on to establish some very meaningful agreements. I hear about the team from time to time, and they are thriving two years later and nobody had to leave.

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