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I know it is often considered professional to own up to one's mistakes.

However, wouldn't it also look self-accusing if someone apologizes for something she/he didn't actually do, for example delaying an assignment because of something beyond their authority; or even something completely unexpected?

Isn't it bad for one's track record to pretend that the mistakes are their fault rather than someone else's?

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Who are you apologizing to? Are you representing yourself, your team, your department, or your company? –  Telastyn Jan 13 at 14:33
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Are you a project manager? -- If so, you should consider that you are representing the whole team effort as one entity -- if it's the team's fault, and you speak on behalf of the team, then perhaps you should apologize. At any rate -- apologies don't fix anything -- instead of worrying about where to place the blame for the perceived failure, worry about how to fix the problem -- and how things can be adjusted to minimize the impact of the lateness. -- That is, worry about how you can add value to the project. –  BrainSlugs83 Jan 14 at 11:12
    
As the answers indicate there is some nuance to communicating deadline-slips without inadvertently directing blame to oneself. That said, many people are apt to "shoot the messenger" and blame the messenger for what went wrong even if it clearly was not their fault. It is advisable to develop a thick skin about stuff like this because not everyone reacts nicely to bad news. –  Angelo Jan 15 at 12:12

10 Answers 10

You should always acknowledge and report deadlines that have been missed or (better) that you now know will be missed. This applies whether you are the one who caused the delay or not. You can start by telling the person who has caused it:

I see. I needed that Tuesday as you know. Not getting it until Thursday means the deploy will slip into next week.

(You tell them first because once in a while the person will be able to change things so you can make your deadline after all.)

Then you tell the person who is counting on your to meet your deadline (a boss, project manager, or client)

I will not be getting a needed component on schedule. This means we have to reschedule the deploy.

Again this person may be able to make things happen so that your deadline isn't missed. But if not, at least they know in advance and can adjust plans.

If it is your fault, apologizing is appropriate:

I'm sorry, but Task 34 is taking far longer than I had expected. I can now see that we will need to delay the deploy by at least a few days.

Communication is absolutely vital. Owning up to your mistakes when you make them is absolutely vital. Apologizing as part of every communication is a completely different thing, and one you should avoid. Not just because it might make you look bad, but because it dilutes the real apologies when you have to give them. If you have said sorry every day, it doesn't mean much one more time. If you almost never say sorry, it means a lot when you do.

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Plus, it makes some people really mad when you constantly apologize. :) –  jmort253 Jan 13 at 17:25

It is definitely professional to own up to your mistakes. But if the delay is not your fault, there is nothing to own up to. In that case, an apology is not needed. However, you still need to inform your boss that the deadline is not met, and explain why this happened. You can phrase this something like:

I'm sorry to inform we will not meet the deadline on project x. This is due to unforeseen consequence A/change of priority by boss Y. Let's see how we can deal with this effectively.

Just report what happened, and only if it is something that can directly be accounted to you, add an apology at the end of the above sentence.

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Objectivity is the key. Simply report the facts clearly and concisely, so that people can make decisions based on the changing circumstances.

If you apologise for something that's not your fault, you're exacerbating the situation by:

  • Making it harder to determine the real cause of the problem, which slows process improvement.

  • Appearing to be looking for someone to confirm that it wasn't your fault, which makes you look needy.

  • After a while, if you keep apologising for things, people will start to assume that perhaps you ARE to blame. Mud sticks, after all.

My method is simple (as I'm a simple guy)

  • Have I messed something up?
    • YES: Can I fix it before it causes a problem?
      • YES: Fix it, don't do it again.
      • NO : Report the problem, advise on impact. Fix the problem.
    • NO : Enjoy having a clear conscience.

Everyone makes mistakes. There's no shame is messing something up from time to time, it happens to us all. The cardinal sin is to cause a problem and then try to hide it, or lie about it. That's the way to lose the trust of your co-workers.

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Don't let someone confuse your empathy for an acceptance of guilt. If what you really meant was "I wish you didn't have to go through this", then say "Man, I feel for you." –  Kirk Roybal Jan 13 at 22:49
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I think this answer only applies if you are a person on the ground responsible for task X which is a part of project A, but not applicable if you have any responsibility for project A being delivered. If I told my management objectively that project A will be delayed because task X was not completed on time, I certainly need to apologize because part of completing project A was making sure task X was finished on time. Whose fault it was that it wasn't finished is not their concern (nor should it be), otherwise there is no point in having a project manager to handle details. –  jmac Jan 14 at 2:06
    
Nice "flowchart", but I'd like to add one important point: "Can I take actions to make sure this doesn't cause problems in the future?". Sometimes delays aren't your fault, but can still be preventable. Learning from mistakes are important. –  Fredrik May 9 at 10:29

It depends on the context and the other person's interpretation of your apology. It can be an expression of regret and/or accepting responsibility for the failure.

"I'm sorry it rained during your wedding" and you get the nonsensical reply, "It's not your fault." Of course it's not my fault. I didn't schedule your wedding outside nor do I control the weather.

Other than informing the person of the situation, you can't control how they interpret it. You were responsible for "making it happen" so any failure is on you if the person feels no need to be rational or reasonable. They may blame you even if you don't apologize.

The worse thing you can do in these situations is to give the impression you don't care at all. If my flight gets canceled due to weather, I don't expect the airline to respond, "sucks being you" instead of "we're sorry for the delay, but will try to make it as pleasant as possible."

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+1 for the being the first answer to call this out. I'm dumbfounded by all the people that are like "ZOMG, don't ever apologize for anything". Like, really guys?, people skills much? –  BrainSlugs83 Jan 14 at 11:24

I would suggest you give the following book a read:

The Clean Coder - A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers - R. Martin (Pearson, 2011)

It isn't necessarily about programming or a how-to to become a professional programmer, but more about a programmers dilemma's facing him in the everyday workplace throughout his career to where he is today. I found it quite a good read myself.

R. Martin suggests to not apologize for something you have no control over. However, if you know in advance that the deadline for something you're assigned to can't or won't be met, you should feel obligated to report this, and preferably have a solution presentable. If a suggestion still can't help meet the deadline you can still try to create a middle ground between yourself and your manager, or for your manager and the customer, to mitigate.

Hope this book can help you out in the future.

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No-one has mentioned this yet; it really helps to know how to apologize:

  • Say what you did.
  • Say what you should have done instead.
  • Acknowledge the grief you caused the person you're speaking to.
  • Say what you're doing to make it less likely to make the same mistake again.

This format makes it clear that you're treating it as an opportunity to learn and improve, and invites the other person to see it the same way. It also makes it clear that you can't really apologize for something you didn't do wrong.

Hint: if you really feel like you must apologize, that's a sign you probably actually did something wrong; think harder to find it. Even: "I didn't build time into the schedule to allow for the project owner to change his mind; since that almost always happens, I should have accounted for it. I know not meeting the schedule is going to be tough for you at the next Manager's meeting. I'll work this weekend to minimize the schedule impact, and in the future, I'll be sure to factor that in."

"Your team" can substitute for "you" above, if you're responsible for a team.

[edit] About the whole feelings/empathy thing: of course, if you don't sound like you feel badly about the whole thing, it's unlikely to go over well. I'm assuming you're normal, and you do feel badly, so you'll naturally sound that way. Also, apologizing is different from empathizing. If your customer's car got flooded, and you say "I'm sorry; that's terrible. I know you really liked that car," that's not an apology, even though it has the words "I'm sorry" in it.

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How (not) to apologize: youtube.com/watch?v=qc_XWlqURTg –  Jan Doggen Jan 14 at 15:42

The apology is not for your lack of effort as much as empathizing with the person you are talking to. E.g. your manager/project manager may have to deal with many repercussions to the delay (chewed out by upper level managers, business stakeholders, etc.). So, the apology, or a phrase that indicates your understanding of the dilemma is a positive way to head off the impression that you might be indifferent of uncaring.

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Hey user, and welcome to The Workplace! The best answers here tend to be longer that explain why and how your answer is appropriate. Any chance you could expand on your answer a bit to explain why this means you should still apologize, and any other advice for someone who may want to try out your answer? Thanks in advance! –  jmac Jan 14 at 4:50

Summary Advice: don't apologize for anything. if there is a problem outside your sphere of influence then raise it into your boss and let them deal with it. Suggest options to mitigate it if you can, in fact, always present your boss with options for progress. But don't apologize.

Context: If one apologizes for something outside their control they create confusion, now boss is confused as to whether the delay is in your control or not. If its not why are you apologizing for it boss will wonder.. why waste your boss's thought cycles by being inaccurate in representing your / the reality of the situation, they already have plenty to think about.

Secondly, there is a kind of dishonesty / disingenuousness in inviting blame upon yourself for something not directly related to you. Boss will wonder why you can't be straightforward, and place the blame where it lies. Boss will wonder how trustworthy your communication actually is.

Thirdly, if you are looking to be promoted, avoid giving your boss the impression that when things go wrong with client projects you will (wrongly) take the blame and thus weaken your firms reputation. That really would not be smart.

So, cut the apology and avoid the ensuing confusion. Also avoid the appearance of false humility.

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Hello user, welcome to The Workplace. On our site, we expect answers to be thorough and provide plenty of context, including explaining why your answer is the correct one. Take a look at other answers on our site to get an idea of what we're looking for. Also, please see How to Answer. Good luck and welcome. –  jmort253 Jan 13 at 17:27
    
@@user - Nice edits! –  jmort253 Jan 18 at 23:35

If you are accountable for missing a deadline of nor doing a task and the outcome is that you missed the deadline and you did not perform the task, then you'll have to apologize for the outcome.

My personal style is three steps:

  1. Baldly acknowledge the failure i.e. "Dear client: the deadline was not met"

  2. Cite the circumstance (without finger pointing) that made it impossible to meet the deadline. Explicitly citing the circumstance in an objective, dispassionate, clear eyed i.e. "clinical" style puts both your failure and your apology into context and enhances my credibility as a capable, competent, cool professional. And the context I want to convey is that the circumstance was beyond my control.

  3. Apologize i.e. "Dear client: I apologize for any inconvenience you may have experienced as a result"

I see the phrasing of the apology as as an opportunity to demonstrate accountability, clear eyed understanding of the issues and reliability and competence as a professional. I want whoever reads my apology to know that the project was in good hands to begin with and I want that whoever to want to continue doing business with me, because that whoever has confidence in me and respect for my ability and judgment. Ironically, a confidence and respect enhanced as a result of this failure.

"Self-accusatory" is your unfortunate perception and your personal issue to deal with. I don't regard my apologies as self-accusatory since they include a dispassionate account as to what happened and why.

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Apologies are for your friends and family, who are interested in how you are feeling. Professionals never apologize or say "Sorry". Just get on with fixing it.

Of deeper concern to me is how no other response to this question asked who created this "deadline". Often, a deadline is just some arbitrary estimate to tell downstream people when it might be ready. If so, just revise the estimate (the sooner the better).

If the deadline is real, like being ready for an industry show, the plan should already include ways to scale back if work exceeds estimates. If you did make the plan, just admit the mistake happened and move on. But mistakes are not something to be sorry about. If you expect no mistakes from yourself or anyone else, your expectations will eventually be disappointed.

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If a client gives you an unrealistic deadline that your boss mistakenly agrees to (humans make errors) and fires you for failing (There's no personal attachment, you're a professional.), don't expect an apology. –  JeffO Jan 15 at 15:00

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