Stacey Hanke

By Stacey Hanke

The Do’s and Don’ts of Women Saying I’m Sorry in the Workplace

The Do’s and Don’ts of Women Saying I’m Sorry in the Workplace 150 150 Stacey Hanke

You’ve likely heard — or even observed — that women tend to apologize more at work, even when an apology isn’t warranted. One study from 2010 found that when looking at the frequency of apologies in relation to the number of offenses, men and women were equally willing to apologize when they believed they needed to correct wrongdoing. But overall, the study discovered women do tend to apologize more.

As a coach who helps leaders communicate with confidence, I’ve seen that while many women might believe apologizing demonstrates respect, it can inadvertently make them appear less confident. For instance, I’ve observed that some women apologize if they are challenging the thoughts of others or inconveniencing someone with a request. It’s tempting to believe an apology softens the blow of a difficult message, but sometimes, it can actually diminish its impact. It might cost you respect and credibility among your peers, leaders, and employees. It can invite others to challenge your opinion and requests. As a result, while trying to be merely polite, unnecessary apologies might cost some professional women their influence.

Throughout my time coaching, I’ve learned a few ways to help women navigate this tricky subject many struggle with. Here are four critical do’s and don’ts of apologizing in the workplace:

Do apologize with sincerity

“Sorry” has an amazing impact on those who deserve it. When a leader makes a mistake, an apology is necessary to maintain trust and respect. A superficial apology won’t do. Leaders owe it to those affected to recognize the mistake and what part they played, ultimately owning the outcome. The apology can’t be an empty, “I’m sorry,” but should be sincere ownership of any wrongdoing. Men and women alike must apologize in these situations if they want to remain influential in their place of leadership.

Tip to execute: When you’ve made a mistake, own it. Make eye contact and say, “I’m sorry.” Long-winded explanations aren’t necessary. Kindness and humility will go far to help others recognize your sincerity.

Do apologize when the mistake was yours

Some scenarios require apologies. The key is to identify the part you played in the mistake. Let’s say an employee has spent a considerable amount of time working on a project, but a key component was missing. As the leader, it’s necessary to point out the error and request rework as needed. It’s not uncommon for women to feel guilty at work (often for a variety of reasons). To soften the bad news, I’ve seen that many give an unwarranted apology just for sending the employee back to correct their work. If a mistake needs correcting, an apology isn’t needed. Instead, it might come across as sounding insincere and lacking believability.

In this same scenario, an apology is necessary if the leader recognizes they failed to clearly communicate expectations or left out need-to-know requirements that caused the mistake. This is when an apology is crucial to maintain respect and influence. Without it, employees grow frustrated and resentful.

Tip to execute: Be clear and concise in your request for rework. Don’t ramble. Just get to the point, and communicate the requested changes. Prevent the situation altogether by communicating your expectations clearly in the beginning. Take time to check in frequently, answer questions and ensure everyone remains focused on the goal.

Don’t apologize for challenging ideas

In workplaces everywhere, men and women professionally debate ideas in an attempt to improve and innovate their business. Challenging another person’s beliefs isn’t rude; it’s necessary to evolve beyond the status quo. Unfortunately, many women use “I’m sorry” less as an apology and more as a polite way to interject their ideas into the conversation. How often have you heard a woman speak up to challenge another person’s idea by saying, “I’m sorry, but I disagree” or “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I have another idea.”

What is there to be sorry for? Disagreeing or respectfully challenging others is expected. An apology for this behavior is not only unnecessary; it comes across as insincere. In this case, “sorry” is merely a filler word taking up space in the conversation while failing to provide value.

Tip to execute: If you wish to interject your ideas or challenge others’ views, wait your turn. Listen to the speaker intently and thoroughly. When a pause occurs, speak up. Be concise, and clearly state your opinion or idea. Be aware of your body language. Sit upright, make eye contact, and politely assert yourself without interrupting. In my experience, others will recognize your confidence and be more willing to act on what you say.

Don’t apologize to empathize

When hearing others’ struggles or burdens, it’s quite all right to empathize or sympathize with their situation. Listen with intent, and give them your undivided attention. Ask questions to better understand and see where your help is needed. An apology for their situation isn’t required unless you were the wrongdoer. Saying, “I’m sorry,” can diminish the weight of your apology. Instead, acknowledge their situation and hear them out completely. I’ve found an intentional listening ear bears more weight than a meaningless apology.

Tip to execute: Listen intently. Make eye contact in a way that demonstrates your desire to hear and understand the speaker. Ask questions to clarify the conversation, and nod to demonstrate your understanding. Repeat back to the speaker your paraphrased understanding of their statements. If you can offer help, do it. If you aren’t sure they need help, ask. A kind, listening ear, and gentle gestures resonate more loudly than an artificial apology.

Women, apologize when you’ve made a mistake. Otherwise, save it. Don’t diminish the power of these two words by overusing them in situations where they aren’t needed. Politeness and professionalism demonstrated through your actions, body language, dedication to listening and strong communication skills earn influence in the workplace and require no apologies.