3 Reasons to Apologize Even if You’ve Done Nothing Wrong

“I’m not going to apologize because I didn’t do anything wrong!”

I remember my kids uttering that phrase a number of times when they were young, and I’ve also heard it from adults in the workplace more times than I care to remember. No one likes to be wrongly accused and most people certainly don’t want to apologize for something they didn’t do. The thought of apologizing when we’ve done nothing wrong, or even worse, when we’re actually in the right, causes our blood to boil. We become indignant, defensive, or lash out at others, none of which does anything to improve the situation.

However, there is a time and place for apologizing even if you’re not guilty. It’s important to remember that apologizing is not an admission of guilt; it’s an admission of responsibility. (Click to tweet) You are taking responsibility for improving and moving past the situation at hand. Here are three good reasons to apologize even if you’ve done nothing wrong:

  1. Choosing relationship over being right—When difficulties arise in a relationship, it’s a natural human instinct to want to assign blame. If the other person is in the wrong, then we can gloat in the satisfaction of being right. It’s easy to dive into the deep end of the pool of self-righteousness. It takes emotional maturity to prioritize the health of the relationship over the ego-feeding need to be right. Apologizing for the pain and difficulty of the current situation, even if you didn’t cause it, shows you place a higher value on the other person than you do on the need to be right.
  2. Lose the battle to win the war—You need to have a long-range perspective when it comes to relationships. There are going to be lots of battles (e.g., differences of opinion, conflict, etc.) in our relationships at home and work, and we’d die of exhaustion if we fought tooth and nail to prove ourselves right in every instance. Sometimes it’s better to lose the battle and apologize even when you’re right, for the sake of winning the bigger war (e.g., maintaining peace, completing the project, etc.).
  3. Take one for the team—As the leader, there are times you need to take one for the team. You may not personally have been at fault, but if your team has dropped the ball, you should take the blame on their behalf. Weak leaders will often throw their team under the bus when they’ve made a mistake. The leader will absolve him/herself of any responsibility and blame it on the team acting carelessly. The best leaders, however, apologize for the mistakes their team make and accept whatever blame comes their way.

It’s no fun to apologize when you’ve done nothing wrong. Every fiber of our being compels us to scream that we didn’t do it, and to blame someone or something else. Responding with righteous indignation often escalates the tension and does little to resolve the situation. If you value the relationship more than being right, are willing to lose a small battle for the sake of winning the larger war, or need to take one for you team, it’s OK to apologize—even if you’ve done nothing wrong.

23 Comments on “3 Reasons to Apologize Even if You’ve Done Nothing Wrong

  1. Great points, but be certain that there is not an ounce of sarcasm in the apology. Sometimes one can be misinterpreted as just trying to stop the conversation by apologizing.

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    • It must remembered that a true and sincere apology means having and expressing the insight of how what one has done has affected the other person. Without doing this the “apology” may not have its desired impact.

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      • Spot on, Claire. A good apology expresses remorse for how the other person was impacted.

        Thanks for adding your insights.

        Randy

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  2. Wet sage advice! Have used the approach successfully over the past two decades. Builds trust in teams as well as with strategic partners and customers alike.

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  3. Apologizing to someone who feeling were hurt because they though you have done something wrong, when you know you did not, is a powerful way to model love and kindness.

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  4. Yes it’s true sometime even you are not guilty for something but you apologize to the one who is been offended and its a kind of respect that you are showing.Indirectly you are preventing thing from becoming worst.

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    • Hi Vishal,

      You’re right, showing you value the relationship over being right communicates a great deal of respect and appreciation to the other person.

      Thank you for adding to the discussion.

      Randy

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  5. I’m not a big fan of apologies where relationships or other substantial issues are at stake. Expressions of sorrow or remorse are fine as far as they go. In my opinion, they tend to be rather selfish. They make us feel better. I prefer making amends. It should be about making the other party whole. If it’s big enough to worry about, it’s important… to the transgressor and usually to the party who’s been wronged. When I’ve fouled something up – and I’m not talking about forgetting to hold the door for the person behind me (that’s when “excuse me” is okay) but when I’ve really hurt someone, my approach is something like “Bob, I believe that my _________ (action or lack thereof) may have hurt/injured you. How can I make this right? Then I shut up and let them tell me. This signals my willingness to affect real repair to the other party’s pain at my hands….and is almost always well received.

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    • Hi Kahley,

      Making amends is the critical action step that is needed in the apology process. The apology is an expression of remorse for your actions and it lets the offended party know that you understand you did something to hurt them in some way. Making amends completes the apology process. It only makes things worse to deliver a great apology but then never change your behavior.

      Thanks for calling out the importance of making amends.

      Randy

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  6. I agree with the article – but when someone says “sorry you feel that way” or “sorry you see things that way that upsets you” How does someone accept that as an apology worthy of moving forward?

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    • Hi Becky,

      You highlight one of the key “no-no’s” in delivering an apology. Using conditional language like “if” or “but” shifts responsibility away from the offending party.

      Take care,

      Randy

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  7. I respectfully disagree. When you apologize for something that wasn’t your fault, you have to trust the other party not to use the apology in bad faith and turn it against you down the line. Some would force you to apologize as an act of dominance, and if you cave in, they smell blood in the water and come after you harder. It’s better to never apologize, and if pressed, an “I’m sorry you feel that way” non-apology is best.

    The exception is your point #3. When apologizing on behalf of your organization, it’s better to come from the top than the person who made the mistake, as it would appear that person was being thrown under the bus, and the public expects apologies from the proper authority. They see the organization at fault, not so much one individual, so in those cases a leader has to take one for the team.

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    • Hi Dustin,

      The level of trust you do/don’t have in the other party is certainly a key factor that needs to be considered. If you believe the other party is going to use your apology as a way to blackmail, manipulate, or otherwise harm you, then you probably have bigger issues to deal with in the relationship than whether or not to apologize.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      Randy

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      • Randy,
        I agree with both Dustin and you – Dustin in the case of working in an environment where upper level management cannot be trusted; and you for recognizing larger issues at the core than whether or not to apologize. Otherwise, I think your article, and subsequent comments, promote great philosophies!
        Steve

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  8. If you have been falsely accused of a criminal offence; an apology will appear as an admission of guilt; so my lawyer says, “Don’t even think about it!”

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