Substituting solutions for apologies

My first job after graduating college had a steep learning curve. Between learning about internal office policy, mastering administrative tasks, and working on my own policy research, it was a lot to take in—and, naturally, I made some mistakes along the way.

I originally handled these hiccups by offering an apology or providing an explanation for why things were not going according to plan. But, as my first few weeks passed, I began to pay closer attention to how my more seasoned colleagues handled challenges in the office.

That’s when I began to make one subtle—but extremely important—change in how I addressed these issues. I replaced my apologies and explanations with one phrase: “Yes, I can fix it.”

Over time, I realized that “I can fix it” was what I had been trying to communicate between the lines all along. After a slip-up, I would try to indicate to others that I understood the root cause of the issue, and that this awareness would inform my actions in the future. This normally took the form of an apology—but my many apologies rarely went over as well as I expected. Why?

There are several reasons. For one, over-apologizing can sometimes communicate messages we don’t intend. Instead of coming across as honest and sincere, constantly apologizing can give the impression of fear and self-doubt. Over-apologizing can actually come across as insincere and therefore undercut your performance. Sometimes our words do not come across in the way we mean them, and an apology can read like an excuse.

Of course, I don’t want to deny the power of a well-timed, sincere apology when appropriate (usually if the mess-up is a big one). The best thing you can do after making a mistake is to put in the work to regain the trust of the people affected.

But whether the infraction is big or small, it’s always important to deliver a solution. Time permitting, this is an opportunity to indicate that you understand the situation and/or relate your actions to the goal or objective at hand. Simple phrases like “I understand that ‘x’ is time-sensitive,” or, “Given our goal of ‘y’” show that you are situationally aware and that you are not asking for any hand-holding. For example, instead of saying “I am sorry that report was late,” try saying, “I understand that our reports are time-sensitive.”

Think of this as providing the “lay of the land.” You are showing your coworkers that you understand what went wrong (and will anticipate this kind of situation in the future).

A tip: when you’re dealing with a work slip-up, do take responsibility for your actions, but don’t dwell on your own shortcomings; this can come across as asking your colleagues to make you feel better (a conversation best saved for later with a trusted confidante).

Now that you have provided the lay of the land, transition to your fix.

Keep your words to a minimum; a long, rambling sketch of your plan can come across as overly apologetic. I recommend sticking to a sentence or two, unless, of course, you are proposing a multi-step plan to address a complex problem.

For example, you might say, “In order to meet our deadline, I will be coming in early on Monday to finalize the draft of our first-quarter report,” or, “Given our goal of timely client service, I plan to create a recurring reminder on my calendar to ensure we have a full week to draft these quarterly reports.”

It may be appropriate to solicit input, or it may not. Take a moment to read the room. Ask your boss or partner, “What do you think about this plan?” or, “Do you have any suggestions for what else I can do?”

Sometimes, serving up a solution is pretty straightforward. But sometimes there is nothing you can do about a given situation. What then?

Try trading out the words “I’m sorry” for a simple “thank you.” “Thank you” takes the focus off of you and your feelings and places emphasis on the graciousness of the other person. It’s another little change with big impact.

For example: “I understand that we have had to reschedule this meeting twice now. Thank you for being so flexible.” “Our IT is working to address the technical difficulties with your presentation. Thank you for your patience.” This is a polite—and positive!—way to smooth things over.

When I moved on from my first job, my coworkers threw a little going-away party. In looking back at my time on the team, they praised my commitment to problem-solving—a compliment that touched me deeply. I had to consciously cultivate this quality by substituting solutions for apologies, and I was pleased to hear that it had made our team stronger.

With this simple change, you can make strides in your career too!