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Why and How to Stop Saying ‘I’m Sorry’ at Work

Do you find yourself saying “I’m sorry” a lot? Even when you have nothing to apologize for? You may think you’re just being polite, but constantly saying “sorry” can have a negative impact how your colleagues and superiors view you, and it may even have a lasting impact on your career.

Last year, Pantene sparked a conversation about saying sorry too much – especially when it’s unwarranted – when it debuted the advertisement below.

“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ to even a minor issue is what we are taught to do when we are very young,” says Heather Neisen, HR manager at TechnologyAdvice. “In the workplace, there’s a sense that to be liked and respected you need to make sure everyone is happy. If an issue arises though, most likely the first thing someone will say is ‘I’m sorry.’ Wanting to make sure everyone is happy is a huge burden to bear and it’s frankly impossible to control other people’s emotions.”

The pre-apology
It’s one thing to apologize for genuine wrongdoing, but it’s another to do it when you’re afraid you’re inconveniencing someone by asking a question or challenging an idea. This is what Karin Hurt, CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, calls the “pre-apology.” According to Hurt, examples of the “pre-apology” include:

  • “I’m so sorry to take up so much of your time, but I have an idea.”
  • “I’m sorry, this is probably not what you’re looking for, but here’s the spreadsheet you asked for.”
  • “I’m sorry I couldn’t have spent more time on it.”

“The tragedy is that what often follows is a great idea or terrific work. However, it may not be viewed from this lens if you’ve already apologized for it being substandard,” Hurt says.

The impact on your career
Neisen says that constantly apologizing can harm your career for several reasons. “Overall, this can negatively impact a career because it can cause either burnout (due to stress) or it could potentially cause an employee to make poor decisions based on emotions and what others prefer instead of what is best for him or her. Additionally, apologizing all the time will tend to make others think that you are not confident or not sure of your decisions. Ultimately, this can weaken someone’s ability to lead well.”

Jenn DeWall, career and life coach and motivational speaker, agrees. “Saying sorry too much can negatively impact your perception and reputation as a strong leader. Your boss or peers may make assumptions that you do not have a backbone and aren’t willing to stand up for your work or ideas.”

Stopping the cycle of “I’m sorry”
Christopher G. Fox, founder of Kindness Communication, a new venture focusing on promoting kindness to achieve better results and greater focus in organizations, says that to stop the habit, you need to first be cognizant of it happening, and second, imagine yourself not saying it.

“If you know the topic of discussion in advance, rehearse stating your position without saying sorry a few times; say it out loud to yourself in the mirror at home the night before,” he suggests. “Finally, if you have a good ally in the mix often, ask her or him to be your ‘sorry buddy’ and point out to you after the fact that you’ve said it. It’s not just useful feedback afterwards. It also helps you feel accountable in the moment.”

DeWall recommends becoming more of an active listener. “Listen to the concerns that are being addressed and think about how they tie to the big picture. Respond strategically without personalizing the feedback or outcome to you, which forces the need to apologize. By doing this, you are able to process tense or stressful situations with a more calm approach and provide a logical solution that contributes to the resolution without assuming personal responsibility for something that was unrelated to you.”

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