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Sorry No More

By Julie Cohen

Do you find yourself saying "I'm sorry" too often at work? Have you noticed a pattern of prefacing feedback or sharing of your ideas with an "I'm sorry, but?" Clients often come to me noticing their overuse of this phrase and the negative impact it has on their professional stature. What place does saying "I'm sorry" have in the workplace?

Words Matter
The words that you communicate with tell more than just your message. These words also tell others about you and how you interact with your world. Here are some examples of the potential negative impact of over-apologizing:

  • Tom works in an advertising agency where he was hired for his creativity and cutting-edge ideas. At brainstorming meetings, he often sits back while colleagues share ideas. He waits until he's ready to share what he believes is something more powerful, creative and meaningful. When he presents his perspective, he always begins by saying, "I'm sorry guys, but what do you think of this idea?"

Tom is consistently frustrated because his great ideas never get any traction. Tom feels the need to apologize because he's not agreeing with the ideas of the group and yet, the group doesn't spend time on Tom's possibilities as he hesitantly presents an alternative viewpoint. Tom's colleagues shut down their focus after they hear "I'm sorry, but..." as they're assuming the content is a mistake.

  • Rebecca, an IT Manager with a team of five direct reports, starts most of her conversations or emails with "I'm sorry." It may be "I'm sorry to bother you," "I'm sorry that I need you to do this," or "I'm sorry to disagree with you." She is a highly competent IT professional. She can't understand why her staff often leaves her projects and request to work with other managers. Her team members also leave the company at a higher level than any other manager.

Rebecca's direct reports have no confidence in her ability to stand up for them when it comes time to granting bonus pay and promotions. They feel that since she can't be direct with them, she must not be direct with her peers and supervisors. She has no credibility as an assertive and confident advocate.

Impact or Lack Thereof
From the above examples, the overuse of "sorry" has significant repercussions. In Tom's situation, his ideas are minimized. The message is lost by the way the messenger delivers it. Although his ideas are very good, most of his colleagues tune them out. If Tom apologizes for his own ideas, why should anyone else bother to listen?

Rebecca's constant apologetic tone causes her direct reports to make the assumption that she is unable to be assertive in situations that impact them - therefore, they prefer not to have her as their leader. Others equate frequent apologizing with passivity. If she doesn't stand up for herself, how will she stand up for anyone else?

Over-apologizing results in diminishing your impact and influence, a perceived lack of self-confidence, minimized expectations that others have of you, and also creates a general energy drain for those around you. If you find yourself in the role of apologizer more than you'd like, you can change.

When to Apologize
Not all apologizing is detrimental. If you bump in to a colleague in the hallway, by all means, say you're sorry. If you make a mistake on a project, hurt someone's feelings, forget an important appointment, or do something that you believe was genuinely wrong, do apologize.

In Marshall Goldsmiths' book What Got You Here Won't Get You There, he says apologizing is a "magic move." When you use it to address a genuine wrongdoing, Goldsmith believes it moves a professional relationship towards change and growth. Apologizing enables a stagnant and ineffective working relationship to focus on the future and results, instead of the past and resentment. Unfortunately, not all apologetic language is this meaningful or valuable in professional relationships.

Banish Sorry
The first step in changing your language and behavior is becoming aware of your actions. Over the span of a week or two, pay attention to when you say "I'm sorry" unnecessarily. Note what you're doing and how you're feeling each time it occurs. You'll likely see patterns - it may happen when you're running meetings, when you're with a specific person that you're not comfortable with, when you're under deadline-related stress, or when you're required to request something of others.

Once you notice the pattern, look to replace "I'm sorry" with more powerful and appropriate language for the situation or address the greater concern that is causing you to question your ability.

In Tom's case, he was using "I'm sorry" instead of providing more direct feedback to his colleagues and out of concern of hurting anyone's feelings. Once he realized his colleagues valued his unique perspective and that they wanted their ideas challenged, he began speaking more directly and assertively.

For Rebecca, she discovered something she was not expecting. Her pattern showed that she only apologized in relation to her role as supervisor. She rarely used an apologetic tone or phrase when she was working confidently with her technical skills and never in her personal life.

She realized that she did not like or want the responsibilities of a manager. She most enjoyed her role as a technical subject matter expert and did not want to be 'the boss.' With this new insight, she was able to transition to a more appropriate role for her, allowing for new leadership for her team.

One last thing to consider - sometimes "I'm sorry" loses its meaning to the speaker and just becomes a verbal placeholder or a shorthand phrase for something else (like "excuse me," "may I have your attention," "I don't agree" or "what did you say?"). If this is the case, you may not be aware of the negative impact of your words. The remedy for this is to pause before you speak. Allow yourself time to begin your statements in a more powerful and meaningful way, only a few seconds will allow your mind space to reformulate the structure of your reply.

Removing "I'm sorry" from your vocabulary, except when genuinely needed for forgiveness and atonement purposes, creates a more confident and competent perception. Make the change and see the results.

Julie Cohen, PCC, is a Career Coach. She helps her clients clarify and achieve their professional and personal goals including greater career satisfaction and work/ life balance. She is currently leading the popular seminar "Overcoming the 7 Barriers to Work/Life Balance" - to learn more, visit Julie Cohen Coaching.
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