How to Apologize Without Seeming Weak
There’s a debate in the business world over whether apologizing makes a person look weak.
For years I’ve put clients on an “I’m sorry” diet because I’ve found people apologize for far too much. I’ve even written a blog on the topic called “Stop Being Sorry.”
The point of that post was to encourage serial apologists to back off of the constant mea culpa because that use of “sorry” does indeed present as weakness and insincerity.
This is much different.
There are times we should apologize; especially when we are wrong.
With the stigma that apologies could make a person seem weak, especially in the workplace, how should we go about it?
Consider that the CEO of a Fortune 500 company started an employee meeting with the words, “Sorry to have pulled everyone away from your duties…” or when nearing the end of her speech, “Sorry, I have one more thing to add.”
My imagination can hear the negative muttering among hypothetical co-workers at hearing either of those!
Not only would that come off as insincere, but would present the would-be (should-be) powerful person as wishy-washy, insecure and wimpy.
This is an issue especially impacting women who, for some reason, feel the need to apologize for all of the problems in the universe – especially the ones they’re not involved with at all.
The big problem is that the bulk of us have over-used “sorry” so much that it seems trite.
In order to be taken seriously – have the receiver of the message actually understand there is an expression of true remorse – we need to find other words.
Which brings us back to the question: How do we apologize without seeming weak?
Here are a few ideas that can help pave the way of “owning up to responsibility” without crushing your powerful position or giving the impression that you’re in over your head:
Use other words.
There are nearly a quarter of a million words in the English language. Pick some others. Get creative.
Stella, The way I introduced my disapproval yesterday was not kind. I wish I’d handled it differently and will be more aware of how my words impact others in the future.
After deciding which of those nearly 250k words to use, come up with a solution for the problem and voice it. State what did or did not happen, and what you plan to do about it. Forward thinking is always appreciated. (You must follow through in order for this to work.)
George, This morning’s meeting didn’t go quite the way we wanted it to. I should have supported your new idea more. In the future I’d like to discuss what we plan to present ahead of time so we can get on the same page and have a united message.
Oftentimes people would rather someone step up and own responsibility than simply express remorse. Owning responsibility exhibits that you are an ethical person and are strong enough to admit mistakes (because everyone makes them).
Bob, I think I left the door unlocked, and that’s how Fluffy was able to push it open and get out. I really appreciate your helping me find her. I’ll be more careful in the future.
Claim your power.
Never apologize from a place of humiliation. Find your footing, step into your authority and hold your head up.
Sara, we’re both valuable members of this team and I didn’t act like that earlier. I appreciate your example of kindness, will model that going forward and hope you’ll give me another chance.
Make it a conversation.
It’s been a pet-peeve of mine that teachers and parents force children to “say I’m sorry” to each other. That’s because oftentimes the kids don’t mean it; they’re only sorry they’re being forced to lie. So don’t just say, “I’m sorry for ___________.” Make it a conversation. This creates a bridge-building opportunity instead of a situation in which you’ll be torn down and will have your reputation or perception damaged. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Byron, When you have five minutes or so, I’d like to discuss yesterday’s meeting and solutions to prevent that from recurring.
Frame your conversation around the changes you’ve already begun to implement to correct, un-do, repair, or prevent a relapse of whatever happened. This is similar to the “find solutions” point above, however, takes it a step farther because you’re already doing the thing instead of saying you’ll do the thing.
Kathleen, My slide deck was not up to par last week. I’ve already gone through all of our templates, corrected the brand colors, and created the start of a ‘brand catalog’ and ‘best practice’ for presenting our company message. Please know I sincerely wish I’d been more diligent in having my work reviewed before we presented it. Do you think we could work together on a proofreading policy as well?
Now it’s time to test me.
Go back through those examples and count how many times “sorry” was used.
Now think about how clearly the following things were expressed:
- Understanding of the issue(s)
- Intelligence (Intellectually and Emotionally)
- Solutions-based thinking
- Being a team player
- Humility (not a weakness!)
All of the responses hit each of those points.
Those points are the building blocks of strong leaders, kind managers, and reputable co-workers.
We can all agree those are things we want to exhibit continually.
So, go forth, apologize, and build your strength, perception, and reputation as you do it!
The most important part of an apology is that this is a two-way street.
Next week we’ll look at what happens when you have been wronged and how to receive an apology in such a way that builds relationships.
There is a huge issue at the bottom of this – and that’s boundaries.
Apologies are usually needed when someone has crossed someone else’s boundaries.