For two years, I’ve worked closely with one of my colleagues. We typically don’t go more than a few days without connecting over the phone, via email, or in-person. Because we’re in constant communication, we’ve established efficient workflow processes to which we contribute equally and collaboratively. Despite our mutual respect and genuine connection, she still initiates every interaction with the same opening line:
“I’m so sorry to bother you.”
Initially, I thought I must have accidentally given her the impression that by simply doing her job, she was a nuisance. But as I began taking note of her interactions with others, I realized she apologized to everyone…for just about anything. This got me thinking about the power of apologies, particularly in the workplace. In general, I feel a strong moral obligation to apologize when I have done something wrong or hurtful. Furthermore, I see an organizational leader who exercises humility by taking culpability for missteps as more likely to achieve greater innovation and support from one’s peers than one who is unapologetically pig-headed. Having said that, there is no benefit to saying sorry reflexively.
I thought of an analogy on apologies. An anology, if you will. Imagine you just started dating someone special. During the honeymoon phase, you hold hands with this person, you hold doors for this person, and above all, you hold farts in with this person. The first time your special someone farts in front of you, it will inevitably catch your attention and evoke a reaction. (And if the reaction isn’t laughter, then I’m probably enjoying writing this a lot more than you’re enjoying reading it.) Regardless of your response, the deed itself is noteworthy. Now imagine you’ve been married for 35 years. At this point, your spouse has passed so much gas in front of you that it’s completely negligible. You are desensitized at best, and rolling your eyes at worst. Think of an apology like a fart. Save it for when it is necessary and appropriate. And most importantly, when the timing strikes…you better make sure it doesn’t stink.
From my professional experience, albeit limited, I have found that people often say “sorry” as opposed to “thank you” when they receive constructive criticism. Instead of interpreting critique as a reprimand for inadequate performance, consider reframing it as an opportunity to learn and grow from someone who has a fresh perspective. If the feedback brings attention to a mistake you made, assess what the consequences of the blunder were before deciding whether you should ask for forgiveness. For example, if your boss catches a grammatical error in a memo you wrote, instead of saying, “Sorry for the typo”, you might say, “Thanks for your attention to detail. I will proofread more carefully in the future.” If your boss has to remind you about an impending deadline, instead of saying, “Sorry, I forgot about that”, you might say, “Thanks for being patient. I will put a recurring appointment in my calendar so it won’t be your responsibility to remind me about that deadline anymore.” When the error is inconsequential, it’s more meaningful to acknowledge it by setting a plan to prevent it from happening thereafter than simply saying you’re sorry. People who demonstrate perceptiveness and receptivity to feedback come across more mature and competent than ones who simply show remorse.
Another instance I see sorry used in the workplace is as a disclaimer. These are the “sorry, but…” sentences. Not only does the qualifier come across insincere, but it also raises a red flag that you’re about to say something your recipient likely won’t be open to hearing. As a result, your credibility diminishes and the person you’re talking to will likely tune out. It creates an unnecessary and disadvantageous dynamic of power. If your message is thoughtful and relevant, there’s no need to preface it with “sorry” because that implicitly gives the other person permission to reject it. I have also seen “sorry, but…” as an opener for a message to a colleague who hasn’t followed-through on his/her responsibilities. No one wants to come across as a nag, so we pepper our notes with apologies to show that we’re not trying to be pushy and that we are empathetic to our coworkers’ busy schedules. Be that as it may, meeting deadlines is non-negotiable in a professional setting and there’s nothing unreasonable about holding colleagues accountable for the job they’re paid to do. Apologizing for either your ideas or your requests comes across passive and helpless. Thanking people for their time and attention or simply saying “excuse me” if you have an interjection comes across assertive, but totally respectful.
CliffsNotes on the Do’s and Don’ts of Apologizing in the Workplace:
Don’t apologize for having ideas or sticking to your convictions.
Don’t apologize for asking people to do their jobs.
Don’t apologize for inconsequential mistakes that would be better acknowledged by developing a plan to prevent the mistake in the future.
Do thank people for their feedback, patience, time, attention, etc.
Do apologize when you are sincerely sorry for what you have done.
Do be prepared to say why you are sorry.