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?
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
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
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
In Marshall Goldsmiths’ book
What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,
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.
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
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.