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When “I’m Sorry” Goes Too Far: Learning to Apologize Effectively at Work



Apologizing is an important part of maintaining positive relationships at work. When we make a mistake that negatively impacts a coworker or fails to meet expectations, taking ownership and apologizing is the right thing to do. However, incessantly saying “I’m sorry” for every minor misstep can diminish an apology’s meaning and have unintended consequences.


Today we will explore advice on avoiding over-apologizing at work and learning to apologize effectively. Key points include understanding the roots of over-apologizing, knowing when an apology is truly warranted, and delivering meaningful apologies that rebuild trust and respect. Tactics for curbing the urge to apologize unnecessarily are also provided.


The Risks of Over-Apologizing


Over-apologizing refers to saying “sorry” reflexively, even when an apology is unwarranted. This tendency stems from various sources:

  • Low self-confidence: Those with imposter syndrome and self-doubt may over-apologize due to feeling insecure or undeserving.

  • Desire to please: Some compulsively apologize to avoid conflict or earn others’ approval at all costs.

  • Perfectionism: Holding oneself to impossibly high standards leads some to apologize for any perceived mistake or inadequacy.

While the intention is to be polite and accountable, excessive apologies can undermine professionalism and credibility. Coworkers may stop taking apologies seriously or view constant apologizers as incompetent. Over-apologizing also continues negative thought patterns like perfectionism.


In short, incessant sorries distort the purpose of a sincere apology: taking ownership of mistakes and re-earning trust through changed behavior. As author Laresha Franks explains, “Apologizing should serve to mend bonds, not break you.”


Knowing When to Apologize


The first step in more effective apologies is understanding appropriate situations. Apologies at work are warranted when an action (or lack thereof) creates tangible negative impacts, such as:

  • Missed deadlines or expectations due to errors

  • Poor quality work necessitating revisions

  • Overlooking tasks that affect coworkers’ workloads

  • Publicly losing one's temper and being disrespectful

In contrast, minor mistakes that primarily impact only you do not require an apology.


Examples include:

  • Arriving a few minutes late to a meeting that proceeds normally

  • Needing clarification on instructions or expectations

  • Respectfully advocating an alternate viewpoint in a discussion

Additionally, do not apologize for non-errors like requesting time off or declining invites to non-mandatory events. You have nothing to be sorry for – state your reasons respectfully without apologies.


Finally, do not reflexively apologize for positive steps like giving critical feedback to help others improve. Frame feedback professionally as doing your job, not something requiring forgiveness.


Crafting Meaningful Apologies


All apologies should contain these core elements:

  • Sincerity: Apologize only for actions you are genuinely remorseful for, not just to appease others.

  • Accountability: Avoid excuses by succinctly stating what you did wrong and taking full responsibility.

  • Impact: Acknowledge how your actions negatively affected coworkers, clients, or the company. Be specific.

  • Change: Explain how you will prevent a repeat mistake or address any ongoing issues created.

  • Request for forgiveness: Ask if the person is willing to accept your apology without pressuring them to.

Additionally, apologies for major mistakes should take place quickly in private conversations. Smaller errors may warrant a simple “my apologies” email. Format apologies appropriately for the audience and severity.


Being solutions-oriented also boosts apologies. Rather than just admitting failure, state how you plan to get projects back on track and what support you need. For public outbursts, apologize privately then lead visibly positive behavior going forward.


Curtailing Over-Apologizing


Breaking the over-apology habit requires mindset shifts:

  • Focus on actions, not anxieties. Ask yourself – did I make an actual error that contributed to a negative outcome? If not, an apology adds no value.

  • Remember apologies’ purpose. They should address harms, not serve as verbal tics.

  • Balance perfectionism with reality. You will make some mistakes – do not apologize for being human.

  • Be resolute, not stubborn. Tactfully stand by justifiable decisions without defensiveness.

  • Own your worth. You deserve to be at work as much as any coworker. Do not apologize for taking up space.

  • Ask yourself “would I apologize to a friend?” Treat yourself with that same compassion.

With practice, you can learn to apologize only when meaningful while maintaining professionalism and self-assurance. The result is apologies that rebuild trust and respect without self-deprecation.


Conclusion


Apologizing well is a workplace skill. While overly-frequent sorries seem polite, they diminish apologies’ significance and paint an unflattering image of low confidence. With guidance on when an apology is truly warranted and how to apologize effectively, professionals can showcase accountability without self-denigration. Curtail over-apologies by focusing only on substantive harms and delivering solutions-focused apologies that genuinely reconnect. Learn to say sorry only when it counts.

 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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