Saying Sorry at Work Makes You Look Extremely Weak

Tim Denning

There’s an apology pandemic. Do this instead.

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Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

There’s an apology pandemic.

HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington highlighted the issue recently. Tens of thousands of readers began to share their thoughts on social media.

The most used word in my vocabulary for a long time was sorry. Sorry is an easy word to say. Sorry is supposed to make up for whatever you did. Sorry helps to change the topic. Sorry is an excuse.

Sorry is used so often that the number of times we hear it is forgotten.

When I’m nervous my sorry rate explodes. I can’t help it. It feels necessary. Sorry really means I didn’t prepare well enough. I want to cover up the secret with a 5-letter word. People see through the illusion of sorry. They see what you’re up to when it’s used.

Missed expectations don’t require a sorry

When someone is disappointed it’s easy to roll out a sorry. This happens to me in business occasionally. Somebody bought a product and it’s not perfect. There’s a glitch in the video. The delivery wasn’t instant.

It’s tempting to say sorry. But often you did nothing wrong. Their expectations were simply misaligned. They assumed five-star service when they paid for normal service.

A complaint doesn’t always need a sorry.

If a sorry isn’t valid, then I simply complete the ask, but I don’t apologize. Apologizing leads to discounting and giving customers the upper hand unnecessarily. Tiny mistakes, delays, and missed expectations are a given in life. You don’t need to constantly apologize for what is business as usual.

Workplace sorrys are the worst

Last year a new member joined my team. There was a raging pandemic on her first day. Her kids had to be by her side at home.

She would be late to Zoom calls. Her kids would scream while she was in a meeting. She would forget to go on mute. She was often tired and missed certain tasks. She kept apologizing. I remember she joined one zoom call and the first few minutes were her apologizing for all her mistakes.

On a call one day I decided to be cheeky: “You don’t need to apologize for being a working mother during a pandemic.” She was doing her best. Her colleagues understood how difficult it was. The apologizing highlighted unnecessarily the difficulties of a pandemic. If she’d never apologized none of us would have cared. Life gets in the way. Your work colleagues get it.

The phrase to say to yourself when you’re addicted to apologizing

Pattern interrupts stop us from doing dumb stuff.

I use the phrase “sorry, not sorry” whenever I find myself about to say an apology that’s not required. It makes me think: “Do I really need to say sorry?”

When to say sorry like a champ

There are times when a sorry is warranted:

  • When you hurt a person’s feelings
  • When you make someone cry
  • When you obviously offend someone
  • When you say something bad that you didn’t mean
  • When anger gets the best of you and what follows is a terrible event

Stop apologizing for these things from now on

How you look

I jumped on a business call a few weeks ago. My hair looked like Einsteins. The terrible hair day was the result of another lockdown in my hometown. The hairdresser had to close.

Showing up is enough. You don’t need to have Lady Gaga’s stylist do a makeover for you before every Zoom call.

Out of control events

You’ll miss the bus to work. Your doctor’s appointment will go over. An earthquake will ruin your day and cause a little after hours repair work. Natural disasters are part of life and we all experience them. Let them occur without an apology, especially if they affect your work colleagues too.

Needing help

The classic scenario is when you join a new company. There’s a lot to learn: new software, different ways of working, updated acronyms, a list of new names, a different eLearning platform, different pricing, unusual customer behavior.

Asking for help is how we learn.

You don’t need to apologize for learning.

Oh, and it’s okay to ask for help on the same problem multiple times. Most of us are not one-trick ponies that learn after being shown once.

Asking a question

I pride myself on being in rooms where I'm the dumbest person. I ask questions on purpose that people are too afraid to ask. In the short term I may look dumb, but over the long term I learn really fast.

“When you say business model, what does that mean to you?” The second part of the question helps to find the answer and acknowledges that even common phrases can mean different things to different people.

Ask questions like a 5-year-old. You’ll become smarter at work.

Slow responses

Email inboxes are jam-packed with clutter. Not even Marie Kondo or Gmail can easily declutter them. You don’t need to apologize for slow replies to communication. We’re all overwhelmed by the amount of software we have to maintain to stay employed.

Reply to an email when you can. Act like it’s the norm. Assume the other person won’t notice your delayed response — because they probably won’t.

This rule especially applies to your boss (if you have one). They may control your salary, true. But you do not need to answer all their emails within ten minutes. Once you get into this habit it becomes the expectation. Instead, I prefer to train my bosses, like dogs, that email communication will always be slow. This is because I’m focusing on the customer, not being good at email.

The worst is out-of-office replies. You know the ones. The long-winded pre-written response people send you when they leave the office for an hour. Or those serial offenders who have out-of-office replies ON every day between certain hours.

Auto-responders set expectations, but they also exploit your time when you are in the office. The new norm is to expect email will be slow, because the volume is too high and can’t be wound back by teleporting to the past.

Slow email is good.

Mistakes from others

I’ll never forget a boss who chopped 20% off our profit margin without blinking an eye. Leaders would say “why are profits down” and expect me to be sorry about it.

Nope.

We don’t need to apologize when someone else makes a stupid decision. Instead, acknowledge the source of the problem and explain how the situation occurred. Don’t throw people under the bus. Simply highlight the decision-making tree required for the mistake to have been approved. Let the smart ones figure out what name to erase themselves.

Not having all the answers

If you get asked a question by a senior leader and don’t know, that’s okay. None of us is a CRM full of every data point associated with a business. Some answers need to be taken offline. Otherwise, a rushed answer is simply a guess that could lead to a lie.

Don’t apologize for not knowing. Instead, set a timeframe for when you can provide the answer. Bonus tip: say “good question, nobody’s asked that so let me find out.”

Making people feel good is a career accelerator.

Takeaway

Subtle changes in communication can take you from sounding weak to sounding confident. Confidence makes you influential at work.

Life is complex. Random events happen. You don’t need to apologize for being human. Stop apologizing for every little thing. Sorry is a filler word that ruins business communication and gives others the upper hand on your career.

Do this: Replace apologies with the self-talk “sorry, not sorry.”

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Aussie Blogger with 100M+ views — Writer for CNBC & Business Insider. Inspiring the world through Personal Development and Entrepreneurship www.timdenning.com

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