Apologizing At Work
There are a set of rules at work that will never be seen in print.
I recently travelled to Paris to celebrate the birthday of a good friend. This was my second time visiting—the first was many moons ago when I was relatively fresh out of college and knew very little about travelling. This trip was very different from the first for so many reasons but one reason in particular was that I paid much more attention to the people around us and the social interactions between the locals. For example, this time I noticed how Parisians would sit for hours under the heated awning of a restaurant laughing and drinking or how they take early evening siestas to rest up for dinner, typically starting at 9 p.m.
One thing that I’ve noticed about Europeans in general (and this is meant to be blanket statement prone to exceptions) is that culturally they all seem to be largely unapologetic. The social grace of constantly saying “I’m sorry” or “I apologize” that we have in the States just isn’t there. This was very evident as we walked around sightseeing or travelled through the subway systems. People would unabashedly cut in front of us to get where they needed to be without a pause in their stride. There were plenty of occasions, like when we waited an unusually long time for food, that I expected some sort of apology only to be met with silence and a check.
This got me thinking about the overuse of apologizing in the U.S. and in particular, the differences in use between genders in the workplace. A mentor of mine once told me that “unless you hurt someone do not apologize. Your colleagues aren’t apologizing so you shouldn’t either.” This was one of the best pieces of professional advice I have ever received but also, one of the hardest for me to execute. I’ve noticed that in general, men don’t seem to have a problem in this area. They normally don’t apologize unless they have really messed up. And, I’ve also noticed that women in positions of power and leadership don’t either. This used to confuse me but as I matured and grew as a professional, I started to understand the implications of apologizing and how it can affect your brand and how people perceive you.
There’s something about saying the word “sorry” at work that unfortunately can diminish your power. If something happens that you didn’t intend, a more powerful position is to acknowledge what went wrong and give definitive steps to ensure it won’t happen again versus apologizing for something that has already occurred. The former gives you power from action and authority while the latter is more passive and backwards looking which does no good to anyone. It definitely took me a while to see the difference.
The same mentor used to say, “there are a set of rules at work that will never be seen in print” and this is definitely one of them.
My advice: save the sorries for your family and friends.