How To Apologize For An Error? Martyr Yourself!

If there’s one thing I’m consistent at, it’s making some stupid error at least once a year. One of the classic errors happened my first year out of college. One of the IT guys and I were good friends, always winding each other up and cutting each other down. He sent out a department-wide e-mail saying the systems would be off for the weekend, therefore nobody should bother coming into work.

Instead of clicking “Reply”, I mistakenly clicked “Reply All” and wrote, “Isn’t this why you have a job? So you can fix my computer and we can work all weekend? Who hired you anyway?!” As soon as I sent the e-mail, paralysis took hold.  I was mortified!

With my head tucked low, I immediately walked into my supervisors office and apologized profusely. “I am a complete bumbling idiot! I can’t believe I was so careless and stupid. I’m such a fool. Please forgive me!” I think I may have shed a tear, but I don’t recall exactly.

To my surprise, my manager laughed, and told me not to worry about it, and to go back to my desk. “No big deal Sam, don’t be too hard on yourself!  Didn’t realize how much you enjoyed busting people’s chops!”

Phew, bullet dodged.

DARN, ANOTHER ERROR

A year passed, and I felt like I was gaining traction at work.  In fact, I was trusted to host a meeting all the way in Anchorage, Alaska! Clearly, I had a graduated from peon status. All was good until I landed. I forgot to bring the presentations for the CEO of a large company who needed them for the next morning’s meetings.  Once again, I was screwed both ways.  My only job was to fly down to Anchorage, introduce management, give them their hard copy presentations and keep quiet.  I blew it!

Feeling the sense of dread all over again, I mentioned to the CEO during dinner the night before that I completely forgot his presentations. “I am a total moron! I don’t know how I could have been so stupid as to forget your presentations. I am so sorry!” I blurted out while hitting the back of my head with the palm of my hand. I could see the CEO’s face wince every time I slapped my head.

“In my rush to the airport, not only did I forget to bring your presentations, I also forgot my dental floss!” I explained.

The CEO then started to laugh and said “Sam, don’t worry son. Everything will be alright. We’ll just pull up the presentation on our laptops, and show the clients this way. Have a scotch on me!”

During the meetings the next day, the CEO did as promised and whipped out the presentation using his Thinkpad and everything was fine. It was then, that I realized how to truly apologize.

ONLY TWO THINGS ARE NEEDED TO MAKE UP FOR A GOOF

1) Never make any excuses, unless it’s funny. Excuses are for losers. Address the mistake and accept the blame.

2) Scold and punish yourself louder and harder than your superiors ever would. The more you beat yourself up, the less your superior will feel the desire to beat you up! In fact, often times your superior will take the other side and have sympathy for you during your self admonition.

If you can take control of the situation, admit your fault, and then whip yourself like Sylas does in The Da Vinci Code, everything will be ok!  The Martyr Method is highly scalable in practically any type of scenario you can imagine.  Let me demonstrate.

MARTYRING YOURSELF FOR LOVE

Let’s say your girlfriend sees you ogling another girl while you’re walking down the street. As soon as you realize you are caught, you can say to her, “Oh my gosh, I am such a dirty pig. What I did was so disrespectful. You’re the only one for me!”

Ok, you’ve got to say this with a straight face, and not bust out laughing. If you can say the above line sincerely, I promise you, your sins will instantly be forgiven. You’ve taken the words right out of her mouth, and told her exactly what she wants to hear! One needs to preempt the scolding that’s coming with your own scolding.  If for some odd reason your original line doesn’t work, you can also add, “How about we go on a shopping spree at Tiffany’s? My treat!”

CONCLUSION

Conflicts and mistakes are never fun. When it is clear you’ve made an error, just apologize, recognize your errors, and promise improvement. Nothing drives a manager more nuts than when a subordinate doesn’t realize what he or she has done. Your manager just wants to make sure you get it right the next time.  It’s how you treat the error and how you move forward that really counts.

Readers, any dumb mistakes you’ve made during work or elsewhere?  What solutions did you come up with to make things right again?

Regards,

Sam @ Financial Samurai – “Slicing Through Money’s Mysteries”

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Sam started Financial Samurai in 2009 during the depths of the financial crisis as a way to make sense of chaos. After 13 years working on Wall Street, Sam decided to retire in 2012 to utilize everything he learned in business school to focus on online entrepreneurship.

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Comments

  1. Victorino says

    Hi,
    This is one of the most honest, effective and coolest “how to” article I have read. I totally agree with all the points. For me it’s still the truth that will set us free in any cases. It maybe hard and may give us some big challenges and discomforts, but if done – then welcome to real freedom. Also, the earlier we disclose the problem, the more we can be able to heal or cure it.

    There is also one reason I learned in my life. Too much negative thinking is a waste.
    .-= Victorino´s last blog ..Personal Finance tips #1: Stick to Your Financial Plan =-.

  2. says

    Your manager just wants to make sure you get it right the next time. It’s how you treat the error and how you move forward that really counts.

    This is very true and very obvious. Yet many truly do not seem to get this.

    No one cares about the mistake. All that anyone cares about is avoiding future mistakes. Acknowledging the mistake reassures people that there will not be repeats. Making excuses suggest that you don’t truly get it, which makes people more alarmed than ever.

    The worst thing is these apologies that are not really apologies that politicians offer all the time. They drive me nuts! These apologies come across to the people hearing them as insults. If you are not willing to apologize, just shut up, don’t offer pretend apologies that convince no one.

    Rob

  3. says

    You nailed it on the head. Being upfront about your mistakes, then reprimanding yourself is the best way to apologize for an error. Most people feel bad you’re so hard on yourself and will give you a break. I’ve made errors myself (of course, I’m human!) and have fessed up to them right away. Usually they are forgiven and I move on. ;)

  4. says

    I don’t blame myself enough, but I think it is a character flaw. While your examples are pretty clear cut there are those instances when you question whether it is actually your fault.

    • says

      I’m just making a funny. I figured some of the ladies would roll their eyes when I highlighted the love example. The thing is, guys just can’t help themselves! Hope no gf/wife will seriously punish a guy for looking.

  5. says

    I’ve done the email thing, and boy was I embarrassed!

    The irony, was that the email I sent was spot on. A network problem was caused by one of my buddy, and I meant to send hime a prance email ragging him about it. As part of the joke I added a mispelled group name for our departmen. Somehow when I clicked submit, the group name autocorrected and the email was sent out to everybody.

    Of course, I tried ot recall the email, but too many people opened it already, so I had to explain what I did (leaving out the part that he really did cause the outage)…

    I wonder how many other people have done this?…

  6. says

    That’s pretty witty of you Sam, telling the CEO you also forgot your dental floss. I think making a martyr of yourself is a good idea, but you want to do it once and be done with it. I’ve seen people where I work mess up and say they are sorry over and over for nearly an hour. It gets pathetic at that point in my opinion.

    I’ve messed up a few times at work – usually just a small programming error. I usually say, “whoops, that was silly – I’ll have it fixed today.” I guess it depends on your line of work, but I’ve found that proactively saying – and doing – the fixing part of it puts my manager’s mind at ease.

    • says

      Yes, being proactive, addressing the problem, and fixing it is exactly what I want folks who work for me to do. Managers just want the problem solved.

  7. says

    Um ya… I don’t think this would work: “you are caught, you can say to her, “Oh my gosh, I am such a dirty pig. What I did was so disrespectful. You’re the only one for me!””

    Good try. LOL.

  8. Kosmo @ The Casual Observer says

    Someone at my company once made a huge gaffe and sent a message to 5000 people instead of 1 – a mailing list started with the same couple of letter’s as the person’s name, I guess. The content of the email centered around the fact that the sender was killing time on a Monday instead of working, and also made reference to what had apparently been a rendezvous the night before.

    The 5000 people on the list received an apology … from the employee’s supervisor. I’m pretty sure the employee stayed on (I didn’t know her) but probably got a fairly stern warning.

  9. says

    I had my first graphic design internship at 16 and wasn’t very experienced at all…. During a rush job I ended up sending 50000 raffle tickets to print with a very big mispell “The Constuction Industry” in big letters across the middle!! Sadly the mistake got back to me before I realised the error and my boss got quite angry.

    At first I shyly just took the verbal beating but it kept going and going until i couldn’t take it. So I started replying about how stupid I was, what I had done wrong and how it was my fault…. But I also was clear to mention that the people who had signed off the job obviously held no responsibility (he was one of the people who had signed off the job for print and I was clearly being a little sarcastic) as they would not have been looking for an obvious mistake….. The boss got the dig and refrained from telling me off any further! Not a complete win but showing a little sticking up for yourself does not always hurt….
    .-= Forest´s last blog ..Garbage City – Now That’s Entrepenuralism =-.

    • says

      Lol… nice! Constuction! Reminds me of when I was in high school government glass and made up a poster that said “GEOGIA UNIT!” instead of “GEORGIA UNIT”. The funny thing is… GEOGIA is exactly how my southern folks say their state!

      Congrats for stepping up! At least you know fo sho how to spell construction now. Have any more graphi design sklls? Might need to employ you!

  10. says

    One thing I have learned through being in the Navy: Don’t give excuses, and actually don’t beat yourself up in front of your superiors (that much). Apologize, relay the facts, and that’s it. At my civilian job this has also helped me I believe. Presents a better sense of professionalism in my opinion.

  11. Boris says

    Hi, Sam,
    I read between lines that you are not done yet, maybe you will not forget another report or send an e-mail to everybody by mistake… But I perceive that you will keep ogling women around even while walking besides your pretty girlfriend! :)
    I woulld suggest: Do not promise improvements, but be sure that you do not make similar mistakes…
    All the best,
    Boris
    .-= Boris´s last blog ..Why smart celebrities seem to say “dumb things” =-.

  12. says

    I wonder if this apology technique works better for someone how sincerely feels like doof for what they did. (I once messed up a mailing list that I moved from a data base to an excel spreadsheet, managing to send a mailer to all the right addresses with all the wrong people listed-I’m horrified even now . . .what? 10 years later???). My boss probably could tell how horrified I was when I discovered what I’d done . . .and luckily I was the one who discovered it!

    As for the technique working in a relationship–I absolutely concur! Whenever my husband says, “Oh, how could I have done that, can you ever forgive me!!” and looks really distressed, I usually start trying to reassure him. Then again, he hasn’t ever done anything really bad . . .like ogling other chicks ;)

  13. says

    Sam, this is a good one. I totally agree with never trying to make excuses. But when it comes to working on a female, when you are married this does not work buddy. LOL!

  14. says

    hey Sam, i think i’ve been missing alot this past days. my commitments gave me no chance to view your post.
    In-order to progress, we must keep away excuses, we must learn to recognize our mistakes and pay for them.

  15. says

    What, you’ve been bugging my phones? I am in the middle of one of those great big blunders now! Hopefully it will have as good an ending as yours!

    You speak the truth!

  16. says

    A while back, I hastily accused FS of “borrowing” some material without sourcing because of a SINGLE line in one of his posts.

    His response was firm yet polite – he could have banished me to the never-regions of the blogosphere. Then Sam started leaving comments on my other posts, I cringed at what an idiot I felt like.

    New to blogging, I thought everything followed MLA/APA format. Like the objective of the Yakezie Challenge, I realized the whole POINT of blogging was the open exchange of ideas and selfless promotion of others.

    In focusing less on ourselves and more on our wholeness, we end up improving our own lives because we improve the lives of all those around us.

    • The Rat says

      You’re not the only one. I once hastily said a few comments at Million Dollar Journey dissing RRSPs, partly out of spite and partly because I felt too much emphasis is place on them in Canada for investment purposes.

      Regardless, I regretted it every since and I was fairly new to the blogosphere and I hadn’t realized that there’s ways of getting a message across while being positive and supportive of the work that goes into a thread.. The big thing is learning from those experiences. I’m also glad to be part of the Yakezie and selflessly promoting others.
      .-= The Rat´s last blog ..The Dow’s Dogs And Underdogs: Got Bite? =-.

  17. The Rat says

    Too funny! A colleague of mine at work once sent a mass e-mail to the staff wishing us all a Merry Christmas. I know the guy really well (we party together outside work) and when I replied to him, I responded in the e-mail jokingly “don’t be so kind you silly b$tch, let’s ditch this place early Friday afternoon, head to the pub and get sh$tfaced before the X-mas party”. Unknown to me, I had accidentally hit Reply All and all the staff got the message. I was so embarrassed and felt like a total ass.

    Your post highlights the most important thing however – being straight up. In my case, I immediately e-mailed everyone apologizing and indicated that the message was only intended for one recipient and in a joking matter only. It didn’t turn out too bad after all. There were a lot of snickers for a few weeks, but that settled down!
    .-= The Rat´s last blog ..The Dow’s Dogs And Underdogs: Got Bite? =-.

  18. says

    This technique has been used by our Prime Minister to cover his past and present mistakes. Unfortunately, no improvement is visible until now. The beauty is, most people are silenced by his apology. Only the clever ones could see through it.

    Isn’t this formula used by religion? Sin – Repent – Repeat :D (funny how repent is repeat with “a”… coincidence?)

  19. says

    Agreed. Identifying a mistake before anyone else does and taking accountability is importatnt at work and in personal relationships. I take my mistake process two steps farther:

    1. Identify the mistake before anyone else finds it
    2. To my boss, friend, or whoever is impacted: Communicate the mistake and root cause
    3. Propose 1-3 solutions
    4. Explain how I’ll prevent this from happening in the past.

    This works even when I make a mistake against myself, i.e. spending over my budget one month.

    I move on from feeling bad about the past (the mistake), focus on a solution (the present), and seriously think of ways to prevent the same issue (the future). By the time I’ve done all that, I’m more likely to remember to avoid the same mistake going forward, and I feel better about myself. I’m thinking, “Wow, you can bounce back from this.” The positive attitude goes a long way. ;-)

  20. says

    A young new employee at a fashion magazine, I forgot to have some copy proofed so about a zillion promotion pieces were printed with the wrong name of a perfume. Instead of Ma Griffe, it said Ma FRIFFE. Since our editor made Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada” look like Little Bo Peep, I did the only thing I could do. I went home at lunch, fell face down on the bed and waited to be fired.

    But as it happened, there was only a small fuss and that was it. After that I learned to cut off worrying about errors by immediately admitting them as dumb moves and moving on.

    As to your martyring yourself for love when caught ogling, I think the only part of your apology that will fly is admitting “men are pigs” in the ogling department. Most females will see “you’re the only one for me” said at that point as pure baloney.

  21. says

    Bang on, rightly said — one should accept his/her mistake without giving lame excuses. At least this shows that you are responsible (professional) enough to accept your mistake. Superiors would appreciate your honesty at least.

  22. Red says

    This is spot on! I’ve watched other coworkers immediately jump to making excuses – or, even worse, blaming another employee – when they get caught in a goof. The best possible thing to do is accept blame (unless it really wasn’t your fault), let them know how sorry you are (without being a total kiss ass), and go from there. It never helps to make excuses.
    .-= Red´s last blog ..Running to my wedding =-.

  23. Mike Hunt says

    Sam,

    I like your approach and no doubt you will refine it further over time.

    One piece of advice, when you get higher up don’t slap yourself in the head. As the CEO of a small operation I’ve made my share of gaffes but a calm acknowledgement and apology does the trick. If you are the most senior guy in the room you don’t want to see other people wince when you smack yourself!

    -Mike

  24. says

    Sam,
    You’re hilarious. I really enjoyed your post. I could just see you sitting down for dinner in Alaska slapping yourself. This may seem dumb, but I have a 2 year old daughter, and the stupid thing I keep doing is every time I pick up food for the family at fast food or make something for dinner, I completely forget about her. My wife is always like, “What’s Maysie gonna eat?” I always feel ridiculous and apologize but I need to get a whip like Silas had, and then maybe she’ll forgive me.
    Again, great stuff Sam. Thanks for the post.

  25. Gbenro says

    hey sam you’re da bomb. Really i subscribe to your therapy. But right now i’m in a mess and I need advise on what to do.
    what I’m about tio say happened just few hours ago. I’m currently serving internship at a Filmhouse in Lagos, Nigeria, and early this morning my boss calls me to say that we got a presentation of a commercial that we made to our clients and asked me to prepare all we needed which included a preview monitor, video cable, DVD player and its accesories. I was going to be asissted by some other guy in-house. So, I began to get all the things and loaded them into the van we were taking then I remembered that the remote control for the player wasn’t working and I knew it just wouldn’t be nice to take the player for instances where a search play was necessary. I consulted the other guy and we decided to take another player that I was very sure was in good shape. He advised that we test the equipment but I was just too confident. We went ahead of our boss to the client’s office and set up waiting for him to arrive. To my greatest surprise the player showed video but had no audio out meaning that there was visual but no sound. We had forgotten to take the speakers to the player. We then began to devise ways of solving the problem cutting the cable to work out some stuff. To cut the story short, my boss walked in and os that we had messed up and in about a minute the client came in and my boss had to buy time. Really inside of me I knew he “my boss” was very embarassed and almost flared. We eventually had to buy a new player which we used this after keeping the client for about 45minutes. To make this worse unknowing to me he had sent my Dad an SMS saying that I’m messing his life up which was exactly what he had sais to me. All these thoughts have been in my head since then and they seem to be resounding I feel so stupid right now but for consolation Your post really has really elevated the vicinity of my mind Thanks man… But I still really need some advise from you and every one who understand that life’s about goods and bads.

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