When Apologizing Hurts Your Career

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You apologize too often.

A heartfelt, well-placed apology can soften hostility, encourage forgiveness, and heal relationships. But what about all those times you apologize when you don’t need to? If you’re like most of us, you give a knee-jerk apology for things that aren’t your fault, like when someone bumps into you. You might even apologize for apologizing!

Saying “I’m sorry” has become a convenient cure-all for all sorts of potentially awkward situations. But while you’re busy throwing apologies all over the office, you might be throwing away your future as a leader. That’s because every statement you start with an apology puts you at a disadvantage: it makes you subordinate. Your apologies can be taken for insecurity, insincerity, powerlessness, and reassurance-seeking—traits that don’t scream “leader.”

To maintain your professional presence, what should you do instead of apologizing? Communicate your point with a clearly crafted statement that more accurately reflects your intent.

Skip the apology when:

  • Sharing your opinion. It’s your opinion—own it! Good leaders project confidence in their ideas. Could you imagine your CEO saying, “I’m sorry, but I think we should adjust Q3 projections”?
  • Saying “no.” Setting boundaries and saying “no” to anything outside them is a sign of self-respect, and is the mark of a self-aware leader. Don’t apologize for sticking to your guns!
  • Asking for help. Why should you apologize for asking for someone’s time, especially when it makes you a better worker? See what happens when you’re direct with your requests: “Do you have ten minutes this afternoon to discuss….”
  • Fixing a mistake. You don’t need to be sorry when you bump into someone, but you do need to excuse yourself. “Excuse me” is also a better lead-in when correcting someone else’s mistake.
  • Not knowing the answer. This isn’t high school, so unless you weren’t listening, you have no reason to apologize for not knowing the answer. You can always “look in to it” and get back to someone. Humble leaders are able to admit when they don’t have all the answers.
  • Apologizing for someone else. Even if someone’s bad choices reflect on you through association, that person is ultimately responsible for their own behavior. You shouldn’t apologize for what’s not in your control.
  • Accepting an apology. No “apology volley” here! When someone apologizes to you, don’t feel the need to shift the blame back to yourself—“No, I’m sorry”—graciously say “Thank you; I appreciate that” and move on.

The next time you feel the urge to knee-jerk apologize, ask yourself if “thank you” or “excuse me” would be better, or think up a unique response that addresses your point. Your career will thank you for it!

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