Careering Ahead

You have to be big enough to apologise

The reaction to the much-parodied video of Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, not to mention other recent penitents such as footballer Ashley Cole (to the FA); Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell (to a Downing Street policeman); and socialite Paris Hilton (to the gay community), shows we have all become rather cynical about apologies.

But I would argue there is a real difference between celebrities, politicians and sportsmen resorting to scripted public contrition to get themselves out of trouble and an apology from you or me when we have upset a colleague.

The pressure of a busy hospital environment and a long to-do list can sometimes make the most even-tempered doctors snap. I remember as a house officer, losing my temper with a nurse during a busy shift after she repeatedly asked me to update a patient’s chart so she could give them paracetamol.

Working harmoniously with work colleagues may not always be possible but being prepared to apologise for being ill-tempered or thoughtless is essential to avoid alienating others. From a purely selfish point of view, a reputation for being arrogant and never admitting your mistakes will do you no favours if you are ever in need of help: there are doctors who are able to achieve great things on their own but most successful medical careers depend to some degree on the support of others.

If you realise you have hurt or offended someone and want to make amends, try to do this as quickly as possible and in person. If that’s not possible, a telephone apology is better than nothing. Email should generally be a last resort as it is very difficult to communicate the sentiment you want to get across and there is too much room for misunderstanding. Ultimately, what you say is perhaps less important than the way that you communicate it.

If you are genuinely at fault, be prepared to accept the blame and acknowledge the feelings of the other person. By all means explain the reasons for your behaviour but recognise these are not an excuse and make sure you show them that you have reflected on what happened and will try and change. It might be as straightforward as telling them: “I’m sorry I snapped but next time I will count to ten before responding”.

Bear in mind that an apology should not be a soliloquy – ask the other person for their point of view and check they are feeling better. It may not be possible to settle a long-standing grievance with a quick conversation and that sometimes a different environment can make all the difference. Consider arranging to meet your colleague off-site for a coffee (or something stronger) if you really want to clear the air.

Inevitably, there will also be occasions when you are convinced you have done little wrong but want to preserve your relationship with the other person. In these situations, try to avoid a blasé non-apology – “I’m sorry if you were offended by my behaviour” – which effectively accuses the injured party of overreacting. Instead focus on the way that your actions might have come across and the upset they clearly caused as this should make it easier to empathise with the other person and speak with sincerity.

As some high-profile public figures have discovered a scripted apology which is given of necessity rather than conviction is often met with scorn by others. By contrast, a genuine apology which follows the principles above will usually allow you to reset your relationship with the other person and can often clear the air within a hospital team too.

Healthcare Performance was established by two doctors with over 30 years’ experience of clinical governance and medico-legal work, specialising in careers coaching, professional development and organisational trouble-shooting within the healthcare sector.

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