Do either of these situations sound familiar?
You start an email to your boss with, “I’m sorry to bother you, but…”
A colleague plops his papers down on the conference table, knocking your coffee over. “Sorry! Let me get this stuff out of your way,” you say as you begin cleaning up.
Maybe you’ve fallen into this over-apologizing trap or have found yourself saying “I’m sorry” for things that don’t merit an apology in the first place.
It’s a bad habit that can morph into a reflex reaction. This self-defeating pattern of behavior can not only be exhausting to you, but also to everyone around you, including your co-workers, boss, and family.
Why Do We Apologize So Often?
This apology impulse may have its roots in childhood. Many women (and men!) are taught to uphold the value of politeness. It’s socialized into our psyches that being nice equates to likability.
Apologizing excessively can be the result of a genuine desire to demonstrate respect. It can become problematic, however, when we hold others’ opinions and reactions in overly high regard. Old habits die hard and unfortunately those well-intentioned attempts to be deferential can sabotage us years later.
A tendency to over-apologize may stem from an aversion to conflict. Apologizing can sometimes be a misdirected means of claiming responsibility in order to make a problem disappear — a preemptive peace-keeping strategy — regardless of whether or not you deserve blame in the first place.
Constantly apologizing can have negative side effects on your career, from giving the appearance of incompetence to annoying your colleagues and superiors with your self-deprecating style. But the most detrimental and lasting side effect of over-apologizing is how it corrodes your self-image.
5 Ways Over-Apologizing Hurts Your Career
- Insecurity and self-doubt – Apologizing for popping into your boss’s office at a scheduled meeting time (“I’m sorry to interrupt. Are you ready to chat?“) is not only unnecessary (your boss agreed to that time slot, right?), it may convey a lack of confidence.
- Insincerity – When you’re repeatedly lied to by others you stop believing what they say. They lose face. Constantly saying “I’m sorry” can have the same effect. Unwarranted apologies not only bloat your speech and detract from the clarity of your message, but also dilute the power of the phrase to a point where it may come off as disingenuous.
- Powerlessness – If you’re the only one always apologizing it can signify a power imbalance, which can erode the relationship and your self-esteem along with it. Here’s where women face a double-bind: female executives who apologize too much may be taken as too timid and passed over for promotions due to a perceived lack of leadership skills. Yet they may simultaneously be criticized for being aggressive if they’re direct.
- Depending on external validation – Apologizing may be subconsciously levered as a way to seek reassurance. When you say “I’m sorry,” are you hoping your co-worker will say, “Nothing to apologize for” or “Oh no, you did a great job on that presentation”?
- Compromising your professional values – Leadership requires backbone. You have to know what you stand for. But over-apologizers tend to focus on others’ perceptions of what is right and wrong instead of their own. When that happens repeatedly, your personal beliefs and values — huge parts of your identity — get the shaft. Without a clear sense of your personal mission, your career can quickly go astray.
Any of this ring a bell? If so, chances are this isn’t how you want to come across in the workplace, nor is it an accurate reflection of your character. It’s time to reclaim your confidence at the office and quit saying sorry as a crutch.
How to Stop Saying “I’m Sorry” So Often: 3 Steps to Take
1. Reflect on how your childhood or early development may be contributing to your knee-jerk tendency to over-apologize
The better you understand how your early programming may be contributing to your behavior, the more power you’ll have to take action and change.
Do some digging around questions like:
- What’s the first reaction you have when someone tells you “no”?
- Was advocating on your own behalf off-limits in your family? Was it encouraged?
- When you were younger, was it acceptable to speak up and share your opinion?
- What other major experiences shaped your outlook regarding asserting yourself and respecting authority, particularly at the workplace?
2. Examine the contexts in which your “sorry” impulse comes out
Start to identify triggers that exacerbate the behavior such as certain people, contexts, moods or times of the day. Pay attention to whether your tendency to over-apologize comes out with some co-workers more than others. For instance, that pushy, demanding client who constantly requests impossible deadlines may send your stress (and your “sorry” reflex) into overdrive.
3. Start replacing unwarranted apologies with accurate statements to communicate your point
At first this can be a tricky. I often tell clients I work with that there’s no shame in asking for verbal do-overs, particularly with family and friends. For example, if you need to cancel happy hour plans with a friend and find yourself auto-apologizing out of habit, catch yourself and say, “You know, what I really wanted to say is…thanks for understanding. It’s a crazy week with all these upcoming deadlines and I appreciate you being flexible.” Done. Now doesn’t that feel better than spewing out “sorry, sorry I’m the worst, I know“?
In the long run, apologizing like it’s your job can do more harm to your career than good. Whether or not it’s how you intend to come across, apologizing excessively can project a poor image to customers, colleagues and superiors– one that may incorrectly communicate your desire for approval trumps your self-respect. By speaking more straightforwardly and clearly, you can showcase your skills and feel more confident in the process.
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