When Leaders Should (and Shouldn't) Apologize at Work

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By Hallie Crawford

"Sorry, can I borrow you for a moment?"

"Sorry, this project summary is missing Page 13."

"Sorry, could you please speak up?"

If you pay attention to how often you say "I'm sorry" at work, you may realize you say it a lot. This is particularly likely if you are in a management position dealing with many employees, and you are trying to not be overbearing or too demanding. Studies have shown that women tend to apologize more often than men as a way of becoming more likable. Many of us probably remember Pantene's "not sorry" ad campaign to help women become aware of needless apologizing.

There are many mixed opinions on the value of apologizing at work. Some say it makes executives look weak to apologize, while others insist that we need to maintain courteous habits in the workplace. How can we strike a balance? When it is appropriate to apologize at work, and when is it unnecessary? Here are a few guidelines:

Do apologize ...

When you have made a mistake. Even executives make mistakes. We are all human. As Edward John Phelps once said: "The man who makes no mistakes does not usually make anything." Perhaps it's the executive who forgot to attach Page 13 to the report. Maybe you discover that you accused an employee of a certain action without having all the facts.

It's appropriate to apologize in these occasions. Admit you made a mistake, and be quick to fix it. If it is a simple mistake, like a missing page in a report, this could be remedied in an email with the new correct attachment. If it was something more serious, like a false accusation, handle it over the phone or in person. Apologize face to face when necessary. This shows you take responsibility for your actions, which can build trust with your employees. However, don't overapologize; say what is necessary, and move on.

Action tip: This week at work, keep track of your reactions to mistakes you make, even little ones. Do you justify them and avoid taking quick action, or do you face them confidently and take responsibility for your actions? Practice saying "I'm sorry" in the mirror if you're uncomfortable apologizing. Ask a trusted friend for help with especially touchy situations.

When your decision affects others in a negative way. As a leader in your company, you may have the responsibility of making big decisions that affect your co-workers for better or for worse. Cutting the budget, changing the vacation policy or implementing new security measures can all be awkward situations you have to handle. Sometimes your ideas will backfire, and they won't be effective or work the way you would like. Other times, changes are necessary but not popular or can impact your employees negatively.

In those moments, apologize if it's appropriate. At a minimum, they'll appreciate you acknowledging the impact on them to show you understand. If the decision was a mistake, let them know you value them and you are sorry that your decision affected them negatively. Then move on. If it was just a tough but necessary decision, be sympathetic, but don't feel you have to beg forgiveness, either. In either situation, realize mistakes and difficult decisions are just inevitable sometimes for those with a lot of responsibility.

Action step: Think back to when you first started your career. Think about leaders you really respected and make a list of the qualities they had. Now imagine if you were on the other side of the situation; how would you want your superior to act toward you? Surely you would appreciate her recognizing and admitting an error that directly affects you. And you would value her empathizing in a sincere way when she made a tough decision that impacted you. Putting yourself in the place of your employees will make it easier for you to apologize.

Don't apologize ...

When it undermines your value.Your employees respect you as a leader, so it is counterproductive to apologize for too many things, such as asking an employee to stop by your office or disagreeing on a work matter. These kinds of apologies make it seem as if you don't value your own worth or ideas. And when that happens frequently, others may subconsciously feel that way as well.

In the situations, replace "sorry" for other expressions, like "excuse me." Or just eliminate it altogether. You can ask your employee "Would you mind stopping by my office this afternoon?" and say "Thank you for taking the time to listen to my viewpoint."

Action tip: Make note of every time you say "sorry" for three days. First, count the number of times each day to determine if it's just excessive in number. Then evaluate if each time was really necessary, or if it can be dropped so that your statement becomes more powerful. During the next week, focus on when you need to apologize and when you don't. Slow down and be more mindful of the words you choose during meetings and casual conversations. Before you apologize, take a moment to evaluate whether it's truly necessary.

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