A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that she is training herself to stop saying, “I’m sorry” at work. At first, this seemed ludicrous to me, now it seems like genius. Business people, most particularly businesswomen need to get out of the habit of apologizing. As a good girl, who prides herself on being “raised right”, this feels a little callous and rude, but there’s an important lesson here.
Have you ever found yourself saying, “I’m sorry, but those numbers are wrong,” or “I’m sorry that I needed to bring this to you,” or worst of all, “I’m sorry for taking up your time on this.”? In the light of day, doesn’t it seem silly? Maybe you’re trying to be seen as likable. Maybe you’re really sorry. But apology statements are often mis-perceived as weakness and should be eliminated wherever possible. You shouldn’t be sorry to correct errors or bring up important topics or take a few minutes of colleague’s time. That’s your job and there’s not need to apologize for doing it.
What can you do instead? Let’s start with a few basics…
Be Direct – Ask your colleague if they have 5 minutes, or 10 minutes, or the rest of the afternoon, to listen, to provide ideas, or just to chat about a project or concern. If they say yes, believe them. An apology for the request implies that you don’t think that your ideas are worthy of collaboration. If they say no to the request, take it for what it is. Assume that they are simply busy with their own tasks and projects. There’s never a reason to apologize when you are direct about what’s needed.
Utilize Resources Unapologetically – All of these resources are present in your workplace because your company thinks they are part of the right mix to get things done. Asking them to do their job is fair. Asking them to help you do yours is fair. Taking advantages of their time and their skills is fair. No need to apologize when you’re asking for what’s fair.
Don’t Apologize for Being Busy – There are times when you are the knowledge expert, when you are being asked for a helping hand. You might not have time to take it on. Don’t apologize. You have a work load similar to everyone else. You have responsibilities. There’s no need to apologize for being busy. If you want, suggest some alternative resources, or offr help later, after your own workload lightens. No need to say, “I’m sorry I can’t help.”
Come Up With Alternate Phrases – When you think about it, “I’m sorry” is meaningless to most of us. But especially for women, it’s the equivalent of saying “I’m fine” when someone says, “Hi, how are you?” Do your best to ban it from your vocabulary. I still believe in politeness in the workplace. So bring it. Ask for help. Offer an immediate “thanks” for the help. Get the help. Say “thanks” again. Get in, get out, and leave a good impression about your appreciation for the assistance.
Stay on Parity – Some of your colleagues are smarter than you, some are just as smart and some aren’t up to your level. Accept it. Maybe your “sorry” comes from a desire to show respect for a higher level employee. Maybe it’s an attempt to direct a subordinate, with a little more finesse. Stop it. We know we work in a male-dominated world. In that world, your apology puts you in a one-down position; it turns you into an underling who has to grovel. Don’t take that on.
Use Pauses and Silence – Especially when you’re trying to break the insidious “sorry” habit, force yourself to use silent pauses. Ask for what you need, then shut up for a few seconds. Sometimes, your apology is just a way to fill the silence while your colleague considers your statement or request. Silent pauses will give you an air of strong confidence. Plus, it alerts your colleagues that you’re willing to let others have a say too.
Decide When It’s Appropriate to Be Sorry – This strong stance on apologies doesn’t apply in every circumstance. If you truly hurt someone’s feelings, it’s alright to be sorry. It’s more than acceptable to be sorry when a colleague has a personal tragedy. It’s not alright to be sorry you won the promotion out of a field of strong contenders. It’s not alright to be sorry when you need some assistance from a colleague.
There are times when you really did made a mistake. If there are personal costs – like lost commissions or extra shifts over the weekend – you can offer an apology on a personal level. But your boss, and your colleagues, are true professionals, they won’t be all that interested in an apology for a simple business mistake. They will be more interested in what you will change, to correct the error now and to do better next time.
A well-placed apology, among friends or personal contacts, can be a remarkable relationship builder. But in your day-to-day work environment, it might not be the smartest idea.
photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/48413253@N00/3303022151