Businessolver Blog

Sorry, Not Sorry: Why You Should Break the Apology Habit and How To Do It

Sorry, Not Sorry: Why You Should Break the Apology Habit and How To Do It
Posted on Tuesday, June 4, 2019 by Rae Shanahan

We’ve all been there.


A colleague approaches you and asks about a project and, even though nothing is off-track, you start your reply with, “I’m sorry…” Or, think about the last time you bumped into someone on the sidewalk or when you received the wrong lunch order. That time you were exhausted and declined plans for a work-related happy hour, how many times did “sorry” enter your vocabulary? 

“I’m really sorry, but,” “sorry to disagree, but,” and “I’m so sorry but…” these phrases are particularly prevalent in the workplace, despite the fact that you may not have offended anyone or did anything wrong. The word sorry has become a verbal placeholder, a way to fill dead awkward space or to take the edge off of a disagreement or a decline. And although a well-thought out and well-placed “I’m sorry” can be very powerful, in many cases the phrase is simply overused and often misused. 

Many employees think that apologizing shows empathy and a willingness to improve. But actually, apologizing profusely and when it’s not needed can harm those relationships you’re wanting to build because you place yourself in a position of sole “problem solver” shouldering all the responsibility. Plus, it can deplete your power and authority.

As HR professionals, we deal with conflict all the time. Internal and external. Apologizing is almost intrinsic to our vernacular. However, there is a way to apologize correctly and develop relationships and act as a trusted partner, instead of that hard-to-maintain superhero persona that fixes everything alone. Here are a few things to keep in mind to stop apologizing and start partnering.

Start counting.

The best way to solve a problem is to acknowledge it exists in the first place. Counting how many times you apologize in your work day is a great place to start. Once you realize how often “sorry” enters your conversation, you’ll be able to gain control and start eliminating it from places it shouldn’t be.

When things go wrong, breathe and take stock.

We are in the people business. Our employees trust us and come to us with their workplace issues and conflicts. It might seem like the most natural thing to apologize profusely for anything that goes wrong (and sometimes it is in fact necessary) but before you start blurting out “I’m sorry” think about whether that apology is necessary to solve or help the problem. 

By automatically apologizing, even if something is wrong, it shifts the roles and responsibilities around. Instead of a partnership, it becomes a one-person mountain to climb. It may feel strange at first, but instead of focusing on saying “sorry” try focusing on actionable items and leading a more productive conversation that focuses on discovery.

In fact, the more information you can get about the issue, the better your response. We know, you may be having some super tough conversations in your field. In these instances, try saying thank you instead of sorry. “Thank you for bringing this to our attention, we can start working on this right away.”

Come out from behind the apology.

In a figurative sense, we need to come out from behind the comfort of an apology and work with our people side by side. In this method, you are looking at the problem together, reaching a resolution together, and devising a plan to avoid similar problems in the future. Together.

If you are always quick to apologize, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage. Instead, take a breath, swallow that instinct to apologize, and come alongside your employees or colleagues as a partner working on the same problem. And remember, ask yourself, is this something I truly need to apologize for? 

Want more leadership advice? Check out Part 1 of our Ditch the Drama series below.