Apologizing at Work

Dear Anne:

My boss told me I apologize too much.  I apologized.  He said, “See what I mean?!”  I was taught that it’s polite to apologize when I’m wrong.  How can it ever be wrong to apologize?

Dear Too Much:

Work: It's Personal by Anne Giles ClellandWhen I started my company in 2008, my husband handed me a clipped article from the Wall Street Journal entitled Ways Women Can Hold Their Own in a Male World.  Writer Dana Mattioli paraphrased advice from Betty Spence, president of the National Association for Female Executives:  “Eliminate the phrase ‘I’m sorry’ from your vocabulary, unless it’s truly warranted.  Women tend to apologize for situations that they aren’t responsible for, which demonstrates weakness.”

Wanting to be a strong company leader, not a weak one, I resolved to stop saying “I’m sorry.”  I was appalled to observe how often and how automatically the words “I’m sorry” came to my lips for the exact situations Spence cautioned about – ones for which I was not responsible.

As I became increasingly aware of the presence of “I’m sorry” in my vocabulary, I realized I used it rarely to express regret or remorse for my wrongdoing.  I used it primarily as a means of appeasement in response to someone questioning or challenging me, or being assertive, even aggressive.  Rather than engage in direct dialogue about the subject at hand, I apologized first, manipulating myself into a subordinate position so the other person could feel powerful in the dominant position, then attempted to negotiate the deal.  Since those negotiations did not occur between equals, they, of course, did not go well for my company.

That awareness was incentive to continue to remove “I’m sorry” from my vocabulary.  I temper that with having learned in both my personal and professional lives to, as quickly as possible, spot my errors, acknowledge my responsibility for them and the harm they may have caused others, apologize, listen, apologize again, and move on.  I am human, I have erred, and I will err again.  It’s not “if” I will make a mistake again, but “when.”  I give and receive genuine apologies readily.

I have also learned that the best way to avoid “I’m sorry” is to not put myself in a position to need to apologize.  At work, most transgressions are not personal but about not meeting the mark – missing meetings, missing details, missing deadlines.  Job performance is usually within a person’s power to control.  When people choose not to exert that power, they fail to meet expectations, apologize, continue to hear criticism, and then claim, “But I said I was sorry!”  They are attempting to substitute a good apology for good work.  In business, that exchange rate doesn’t work.

About gratuitous or frequent apologies, I become very thoughtful when I hear them from others, whether from women or from men.  I ask myself if people are apologizing for wrongdoings for which they are responsible.  If they are responsible, as a business person I wonder if the number of “I’m sorrys” matches the number of dollars their mistakes cost my company.  If they’re not responsible, I wonder what their motivation is for manipulating me with an “I’m sorry.”  What do they gain from putting me one-up to their one-down? 

When you’re wrong, it’s not polite to apologize – it’s imperative.  If you’re not wrong – what’s your motivation?  That, Too Much, is what your boss wants to know.


Need help with a personal problem at work? E-mail your question to Anne Giles Clelland at [email protected].

Please include the subject line "Workplace Advice." Anne regrets that not all questions can be answered, personal replies are not possible, and questions may be edited for brevity and clarity.

Valley Business FRONT's Workplace Advice Column, written by Handshake 2.0's Anne Giles Clelland, appears monthly in Valley Business FRONT and in the collection Work: It's Personal. A version of this column appeared in the April, 2012 issue.

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