Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Sorry? What are you really saying?

Several years ago I had cause to apologise to a Director in another part of the organisation. I had made an error. I can't actually remember what I had done (or not done) but it was a mistake and it was big enough that I do remember feeling slightly sick about it at the time.
I took my time to craft an email apology. Before sending, I asked my senior manager to review it. He looked at me incredulously.
"Too much?" I asked.
"Rather than sending this email," he replied, "why don't you just go over there and sacrifice your first born? It'll have about the same impact."
This exchange came to mind when I read Melody Wilding's Forbes article "Stop over-apologising at work" which suggested that saying sorry too often can damage your self-confidence and harm your career prospects.
It's an interesting thought. At the time, I wouldn't have described myself as insecure or requiring external validation but the email told a different story.
So, should I have ignored the mistake and said nothing? I have worked with people who truly believed an apology was a sign of weakness. Personally, I think being able to apologise well is a sign of strength.
But making a good apology is harder than it sounds.

Saying "Sorry" is not the same as apologising

"Say you're sorry!" is a well-worn phrase in many households with small children. Usually this instruction is followed by a shouted or muttered "So-reeeeeey!" which actually means the complete opposite.
And it's not much better in adulthood. We Brits are well known for our frequent verbalisation of "Sorry" to the point that it doesn't mean anything, it's just an instinctive response. At the other end of the scale, everyone has heard so-called apologies from politicians, sportsmen or wealthy business owners who don't actually apologise at all.
An apology allows us to be vulnerable. It says "I got it wrong", "I have more to learn", "I want to do better". A genuine apology is powerful.

Say what you mean

In my original apology email, I wanted the Director to know that I had integrity (I owned my mistakes), that I was competent (I understood the error and would correct it) and that I had courage (I was emailing a senior person to 'fess up). However, I had made (at least) two BIG mistakes.
  1. I had allowed emotion to interfere with my communication
  2. I had forgotten the recipient was a human being
Emotion gets in the way of clear communication. I am an emotional person. I do not subscribe to the view that there is no place for feelings at work; however I know that it is important not to let emotion obscure your message.
In addition, I hadn't thought about the impact on person reading the email. Everyone's inboxes are congested and time is precious so it makes sense to consider how the words may be received and what opinion might be formed as a result.
My first draft, rather than apologising for my error and committing to resolve the issue, was the email equivalent of sobbing incoherently at his feet. Neither useful nor comfortable for either of us.

So what?

The process of re-drafting and sending that email was exceptionally useful. It made me think about my message, my tone and what I wanted him to know/think/do by reading it. It helped me become aware of the language I was using every day and whether it aligned or conflicted with my values and sense of professional worth.
I realise now that genuine apologies come from understanding our values and the values of others. Acknowledging when we have not acted in accordance with our own values or have not respected someone else's values is the beginning of an authentic apology.
That's not to say I am an expert apologiser. I continue to make mistakes, am clumsy with words or, I accept, may appear disingenuous at times. I am learning, as we all are. I will fail at times and that's OK (just about) and I give you permission to call me out if my words don't ring true.

What next?

If you think you over-apologise at work, answering these questions may help;
  1. How often do you use the word "Sorry" (either over email, text or in person) during the day?
  2. When you say "Sorry", what do you really mean? What proportion of times do you actually intend to apologise for something?
  3. Of those times when you do intend to apologise, what, specifically, are you apologising for?
  4. When you apologise, what is your intention for the other person (i.e. what do you want them to think, know, do as a result)?
  5. What is the most sincere apology you have ever received at work? What made it so effective?
And if you've got any tips you'd like to share about authentic apologies, do get in touch!
Stephanie works with intelligent individuals and teams on leadership, personal impact, choice and change. Find out more at

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