A couple of years ago, I read something about how women constantly apologize at work. It was sort of an offhand comment in a longer article, but it was the one thing that really stuck with me. So I started paying more attention to how often I was saying “I’m sorry” or “my apologies”. And surprise, surprise I said it a lot.
Why was I sorry? I’m not sorry. I’m a Capricorn; we’re born to not say I’m sorry. We do something wrong and make other people apologize. So why was I apologizing for not responding to someone’s first e-mail within 2 business days? Why would I say I’m sorry for not having enough copies for someone who didn’t accept the meeting invite?
Women spend a lot of time at work worrying that everyone is appeased. We want to make sure that everyone feels included and heard. So when something isn’t exactly right we immediately feel like it’s an egregious error for which we must apologize.
A lot of this feeling comes from the fact that women are measured on past performance while men are measured on potential. So if I don’t bring extra copies to a meeting, that’s going to be remembered as opposed to the fact it was a meeting I arranged to present a plan to move a key strategy forward.
Something I started paying attention to while I was trying to break the apology habit was how often men were apologizing. You’ll be shocked but the answer is basically never. A good example is running late for meetings. I noticed if my female colleagues were late to meetings they would emphatically apologize. “I’m so so sorry for being late. Oh my gosh I’m so sorry.” Meanwhile men would just walk in the room and sit down. No explanation necessary. So that’s what I started doing when I was a minute or two late for a meeting. For full disclosure I pride myself on never being late to meetings so this is rare. But I felt in control of the situation as opposed to worried that it was going to be remembered and noted on my performance review. “Tracy was 2 minutes late to a meeting once where she was merely an interested party listening.”
So after I read that article, the next day I stopped saying ‘I’m sorry’. Now I have several go-to responses I use when I would previously have apologized.
Replace ‘I’m Sorry’ with ‘Thank You’
To start replacing I’m Sorry from your vocabulary, try showing gratitude instead. When you might say “I’m sorry for not getting back to you sooner”, try “Thank you for your patience”. I started by using this method which helped shift the view of being apologetic. Using gratitude acknowledges the issue while setting a positive tone to keep things moving.
Offer a Solution
Another option is to offer a solution instead of apologizing. Say you forget to include something in an e-mail to a colleague or your boss and they respond asking for it. Instead of immediately going into “I’m so sorry, here it is” or “My apologies, it’s attached”, say “In my e-mail I did not include X. Attached are the details.” Or try “You are right, I did not include the document, I will send it now.” Responding with an acknowledgement and solution shows you are professional and polished. Everyone sends an e-mail missing something at some point in their career. It’s not career ending, don’t apologize for it.
Stop Saying “Just”
Apologetic language isn’t limited to actually saying “I’m Sorry”. A big problem is apologizing before you’ve even done anything. Like sending an e-mail asking for something and you might say “I just wanted to see if you had X” or “I just wanted to follow-up”. It’s like apologizing for something you haven’t done. When you use ‘just’ you’re apologizing for asking someone to do their job or apologizing for having to follow-up. Instead just say “I’m following up on X” or “Will you send me X?”
Sometimes You’ll Need to Offer an Apology, Make It Count
There will be times in your career where you screw up. You will miss a deadline or you will drop the ball on something. It will all be fine. But those are the circumstances where you truly need to offer an apology and make amends with someone. If you have thought through unapologetic options and still have a gut feeling you need to make amends with an apology, you should. Apologies should be genuine and authentic. Use them sparingly so that when the circumstances call for it, your colleagues or boss will know you truly mean it.
The power of not apologizing will positively impact your career. You will feel more in control of each situation and and it lets you own what you’re doing. The changes will be noticeable pretty quickly. However, it’s a behavior you’ll need to be conscious of pretty much always until you really break the habit. I’m two years in and still have to remind myself. But it’s helped me feel more confident at work and allowed me some relief from the idea of perfectionism, which is a topic for another time.
Has anyone else tried to stop using apologetic language at work? What are some of your tricks for overcoming this?