As soon as we begin to utter words, we’re taught to say please and thank you—followed closely by I’m sorry. From a very early age, we learn that if we do something wrong, we should apologize for it.
And that’s still true—if you flout the rules of etiquette, show up late to an important function, or offend a friend, saying you’re sorry is often an important step to mending the wrong. But there comes a point, especially in the workplace, when being too apologetic or apologizing for the wrong things doesn’t help at all. And, in fact, it can backfire.
You want to keep your boss and your clients happy, so it can be tempting to say you’re sorry for everything that goes wrong—including the things that are completely out of your control. But it’s important to recognize that not everything is your burden to bear. Apologizing unnecessarily can actually undercut your professionalism by introducing doubt and diminishing others’ confidence in you.
So, stop begging for forgiveness for the wonky chair in the conference room (unless it’s actually your job to get it fixed) or for the UPS guy being late. Follow these do’s and don’ts, and you’ll make sure you keep the “I’m sorry’s” in their place.
Do: Choose Your Apologies Carefully
Picking and choosing what missteps are worthy of an apology demonstrates your grasp (or lack) of professional judgment. If you offer the same effusive apology for not bringing a notepad to a meeting as you do for missing an important deadline, you’re essentially putting the two gaffes on the same level, though they’re not even close.
Sometimes, the things we apologize for aren’t even gaffes at all. If a non-urgent email comes in before lunch and you don’t hit reply until the afternoon, don’t apologize for a late response. The recipient probably wouldn’t have even thought of it as late if you hadn’t mentioned it. In the same vein, don’t start an email or a phone call with “I’m sorry to bother you, but…” unless there’s a very good reason you’re sorry about it.
Don’t: Open up Doubt
When you utter the words “I’m sorry” or “my apologies for,” you’re essentially taking responsibility for an outcome, whether or not it was actually your fault. So, if it’s not, why let others think that you’re in the wrong?
If the speaker to your event is late because he overslept and missed his flight, you can try and solve the problem, but don’t apologize for his bad behavior—it’s not your fault, and you certainly don’t want your boss to think it is. Do yourself a favor and don’t plant the unnecessary doubt.
Do: Change What You Can
Many of the things we’re tempted to apologize for are things that we are insecure about (a former co-worker of mine apologized profusely and repeatedly for the sound her shoes made on the pavement), or simple absentmindedness.
If you notice patterns in your behavior that bother you to the point that you’re apologizing for them, consider what you might do to avoid those situations. If you’re prone to forgetting things, note the items you need to bring to a meeting right in your calendar so you can easily grab them on your way out. (And, old co-worker, perhaps you should invest in some new shoes or rubber soles.)
Don’t: Shirk Responsibility
Of course, avoiding apologies does not mean skirting responsibility. When you are at fault for something, whether it’s a breach of etiquette or a professional mistake, you should come clean. Offer your sincere apology once—just once—and make a plan to recover from your mistake. The only thing worse than an unnecessary apology is an unnecessary apology followed by an unnecessary explanation.
The next time you’re tempted to apologize for something, take a deep breath and think it over. Was it your fault? Did you actually do something wrong? Or will this apology plant doubt about your abilities? Think about the impact you want to have with your apologies, and save the “I’m sorry” for moments when you really need it.