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Sorry always seems to be the hardest word… in the office

OPINION | Andrew Laird
Tuesday 14th April 2015

Audrey Lee grew up in a home which “cherished Confucian ideals”. Ideals such as humility and saying sorry. Ideals that she believes didn’t set her up well for the modern workplace.

Last year Lee wrote a widely read article titled, ‘How to suppress the apology reflex’. In it she argued that confidence is an essential quality in the modern workplace, and that, “Confidence, at least in the American workplace, means never having to say you’re sorry”.1 She grew up being taught to say sorry, so to survive in the workplace she needed to learn how to “suppress the apology reflex”.


A passive aggressive work note

Lee’s experience perhaps sounds familiar. It’s the confident, brash person that gets noticed and promoted. The quiet, apologetic one can be easily overlooked. Not to mention that some workplaces actively discourage their employees from saying sorry, out of fear of litigation. To be seen as confident means that you don’t say sorry. Sorry can often seem to be the hardest word to say in the office.

But does apologising really equal a lack of confidence? And what about for the Christian, for whom confession is a key mark of what it means to follow Jesus?

At the heart of the Christian faith is the cross; the death of Jesus for sinners. And the key response to make in light of the cross is confession and repentance. To acknowledge our faults, admit our failure to glorify the living and true God and to ask for forgiveness. It is to apologise, to say sorry. Sorry may be the hardest word to say in the office, but it is the first word spoken by the one coming to faith in Christ.

And it continues to be a word that all those who follow Christ are to speak (James 5:16, 1 John 1:9). We recognise that we are broken people, we don’t have it all together, we can’t do it all on our own, so we admit our weaknesses, confess our failures and cry out for help.

But far from this being a sign of a lack of confidence, I would suggest it is the exact opposite. It is only the person who is truly confident in their status before God, as a forgiven sinner, that can confidently admit that they don’t have it all together. As much as the confident, brash person in the office might like us to think otherwise, they don’t either. Saying sorry is a hallmark of the Christian faith. It is a word those truly confident in their status before God can say.

And because it is at the heart of the Christian faith, saying sorry in the workplace is a key aspect of our Christian witness. As we seek to testify to the values of Jesus’ better kingdom, saying sorry is an important way that we do this. “Peacemaking is an essential part of what it means for Christians to be salt and light, the faithful presence and anticipation in this world of the world to come…therefore saying sorry is an indispensable weapon in our arsenal as we engage with those around us in a manner that reflects the values of the kingdom and the character of our King”.2

So how do we say sorry in the office? Here are three simple steps:

1) Admit to yourself that you made a mistake. Whenever we make a mistake our first reaction usually is to try and shift the blame. Its been humanity’s default position right from the beginning (Genesis 3:12). “If he hadn’t put me in this situation I might not have made that error”. “If she had given me more assistance I wouldn’t have done that”. Or maybe even “it’s not my fault”. But we need to acknowledge to ourselves that we’re responsible. We made the mistake. Don’t try and find a way of shifting the blame.

2) Admit it to God. The second thing that we should do is admit it to God. Apologise to Him for our carelessness or our forgetfulness or our laziness or our selfishness or our pride. Whatever it is, confess it to Him, because ultimately all sin is against Him (Psalm 51:4). But confess it at the foot of the cross, knowing that He is quick to forgive and has done all that is necessary for you to be forgiven (Psalm 51:17, 1 John 1:9). But as well as admitting it to God also ask Him to help you handle the difficult conversation you likely need to have with a colleague or boss about your mistake. Ask Him to help them to be understanding and forgiving.

3) Admit it to those affected. The final thing to do is to admit your mistake to those affected by it. Admit that you’re responsible. Don’t try and shift the blame – cop it on the chin. Depending on the size of the mistake an email might be a sufficient apology. Or maybe you need to do it over the phone or in person. But don’t shy away from admitting your mistake and apologising. And then seek to rectify the problem. Seek to make amends for what you have done. Learn from the mistake so that you don’t do it again. In short, we should apologise “genuinely, specifically, and in such a way as to shoulder the consequences as we take responsibility for ourselves and our actions”.

As mentioned earlier, far from it being a sign of weakness and a lack of confidence, to own up and admit fault and express a willingness to accept the consequences is a sign of strength and confidence. But not a confidence in ourselves. Rather a confidence in our status before God as forgiven sinners. And in my experience, when we respond to our mistakes in the workplace in this way colleagues are often very understanding…and quite surprised. It’s unusual behaviour to admit fault. And that stands out to our colleagues. It gives them a taste of the values of Jesus’ better kingdom…and perhaps even makes them want to know more.

Andrew Laird is the director of Life@Work, an initiative of the Melbourne City Bible Forum, which aims to help Christians think through how their faith connects with their work.

1. Audrey Lee, How to suppress the apology reflex, The New York Times, January 18, 2014.

2. Chris Swann, There are apologies and then there are apologies, CASE Magazine, No. 40, 2014.

Image credit: Kai Hendry via Flickr

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