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Ask Sabina: Why you need to stop saying sorry in the workplace

Ask Sabina: Why you need to stop saying sorry in the workplace

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Dear Sabina,
I often find myself saying sorry at work for things I know I shouldn’t be apologising for. I feel that it has become a reflex response and I worry that it’s giving people the wrong impression. Have you got any advice for how I can change this behaviour, and do I need to? Thanks, Sue

Hi Sue,

Frequently saying sorry without merit can start for one reason and then become a mindless and unhelpful habit. Many of us are taught that it’s important to be polite and think of others, and sometimes we attempt to keep the peace at any cost. Yet, while we may mean well, the reality is that kicking off a conversation or email with the little “s” word can give others the impression that we’re low in confidence, insincere, powerless, or even compromising of our values.

Psychologically speaking, many of our reflexes are automatic, typically physical responses designed to help us increase our chances of survival, connection, or attachment with others. Of course, it’s unlikely that we’re literally trying to stay alive at work, but many of us may adopt unhelpful speech and behaviour habits to try to maintain a sense of belonging, acceptance, connection, respect, or even to simply uphold secure employment.

Change requires awareness, and it’s clear from your letter that you’ve already got this. Now it’s time to explore when and how you’ve honed your sorry reflex and think, what situations are making me respond this way? Was I fearing rejection, feeling overworked and undervalued, worrying about being on the outer? Was I anxious about job loss, feeling sensitive to embarrassment, or perhaps suffering guilt for letting someone down?

In any case, the next step is to replace “I’m sorry” with accurate statements that are more factual. Instead of “I’m sorry,” why not try “I’m working on a deadline now. Can I help you with something quickly? If not, let’s make a time to talk later.” This kind of reworked response is respectful, direct, action-oriented, but not apologetic.

As well as overusing “sorry”, there are many other turns of phrase that can also undermine our assertiveness and authenticity. Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big, suggests that misuse of little words including “just”, “actually”, “kind of”, or even asking “does that make sense?” at the end of a sentence can also undermine our power.

Of course, sometimes a real apology is necessary and can be a very powerful offering. In this case, I like to define a genuine apology using the three Rs.

  • The first requires an explanation of the words and behaviour that you Regret.
  • The second means taking Responsibility for your contribution to the problem or issue.
  • The third involves offering up a Remedy including what you’ll aim to do differently moving forward.

However, if the situation doesn’t warrant an apology, then leave it out. And save your “sorry” for acts and words you do regret.

Have you got a question for Sabina that you’d like featured? Submit it to asksabina@seek.com.au  

Explore more advice from Sabina Read here. 

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