How and When to Say “I’m Sorry” at Work

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The way you routinely speak at work may say more about you than you realize.  Some words are particularly powerful and should be handled with care.

sorry noteOne of those big impact words is “sorry.” It’s typically defined to include emotions like regret, sadness and penitence, but in practice it can have many shades of meaning. And when we say the phrase “I’m sorry” in a work environment, we might be expressing anything from remorse, to subservience or uncertainty, to defiance.

The research about saying “sorry” seems to be evolving, and the word’s nuances vary with organizational cultures. But here’s my take on how, when and whether to say, “I’m sorry”:

  • Do say you’re sorry when you’ve done something wrong. When you screw up on the job, the best plan is generally to confess immediately, apologize sincerely, and turn quickly to rectifying the situation or making sure that it won’t happen again. For the victim, when you apologize you make a bit of moral restitution. You give them some power over you, and as they see your discomfort they can decide whether to accept your apology or withhold forgiveness. But your apology gives you something back, as well. When you ‘fess up, it can be like a reset button, and you have a chance to move on and restore the normal order.
  • Be sincere when you apologize. Not all apologies improve matters. Your “sorry” is more likely to be favorably received when you mean it. You can transmit the intensity of your regret by describing how you actually feel (“I couldn’t sleep last night”) and proposing a way to make up for your wrongdoing.
  • Do say “sorry” even if you weren’t to blame. Sometimes we say, “I’m sorry,” not to express remorse, but to show our compassion. This might happen when things go wrong in some way far beyond your control, like horrible weather that inconveniences your guests. Or you might say, “I’m so sorry,” to acknowledge a personal loss, like a death in the family. There’s some psychological research suggesting that this kind of “superfluous” apology can build a sense of trust and connection between you and the listener, and make everybody feel better.
  • Don’t say it when you don’t mean it. Saying “I’m sorry” when you’re feeling the opposite can feel like an insult to the recipient. “Sorry” is a complex word, and it can be inflammatory when your non-verbal message is the opposite of regret. Don’t make the situation worse by accompanying the phrase “I’m sorry” with a grimace or an eye roll. And avoid beginning your sentence with “I’m sorry, but…” When you don’t feel at fault, avoid making a fake apology. Instead, focus on improving the situation, and say something positive like, “let’s see what we can do to fix this.”
  • Don’t say “sorry” to soften an insult. If you say, “Sorry, but this draft is no good,” don’t think your wording will make the message any easier to accept. If you really do feel bad about having to deliver bad news, make it clear what you regret, and then be direct about delivering the message. You might say, “I’m truly sorry if this will ruin your weekend. But I have to ask for a number of changes in your draft.”
  • Don’t say “sorry” when there’s nothing to apologize for.   Sometimes people repeatedly say “I’m sorry” as a way to show deference or humility. A clever 2014 ad from Pantene asks the question, “Why are women always apologizing?” That video shows a series of situations where women say “sorry” for things that don’t call for an apology, like asking a question or making a reasonable request. It makes the point that “sorry” doesn’t mean the same thing as, “excuse me,” and illustrates how needless apologies can make you sound uncertain or insecure.

Do you think that you say “I’m sorry” too often? Or, perhaps, not enough? If you want to get a clear picture of your speech habit, keep a log for a week or two. Write down every instance when you apologize, noting precisely what it is that you regret.

Beverly Jones is an alum of Ohio University. Her column appears at Clearways Consulting LLC. Republshed with permission. For archives and additional content, visit the Clearways Consulting website.