I have a confession: I am too quick to say sorry.
As a woman who has worked part-time, full-time, freelance (and a few things in between), I have found myself apologizing a bit too much at work. I know what you’re thinking: A lot of women apologize too much at work.
That’s not entirely true. In a study conducted by Schumann and Ross in 2010, researchers found that women don’t necessarily apologize more than men. Women do report committing more wrongdoings than men, however, making it appear as if they apologize excessively. What I had to figure out for myself was whether I was apologizing too much at work or simply perceiving minor mistakes as major wrongdoings.
Just as I started to wonder about this, something came up at work. While working for my previous employer, I received a scathing email from a partner accusing our office of mishandling donated money. I discovered that one of my colleagues was responsible for the error. Although the partner said she knew it was not my fault, it was awkward to be in the middle of something that could hurt our reputation. Even after creating multiple email drafts and discussing it with my team, I struggled to come up with a way to respond that wasn’t “I’m sorry.” You might think this makes sense. After all, why wouldn’t I apologize for something so deplorable?
But apologizing wasn’t going to fix the issue, and I wasn’t comfortable admitting fault for an offense I had not committed. Instead, I decided to be effective. So, I conjured my team again, and we devised a plan. Shortly after, I crafted a response that quelled my supervisor’s concerns, made the partner a bit happier (huge progress, given the circumstances), and confirmed my decision to stop apologizing at work. My response was concise and constructive. And the best part? There wasn’t a single sorry in sight.
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In some cases, women apologize to fill dead air, address uncomfortable topics, or lessen the blow of disagreement. That’s a normal, human response to an uncomfortable situation like mine.
What I learned, though, was that I wasn’t apologizing for the wrongdoing itself, but because I didn’t know what else to say when something at work went wrong. Even if I was not responsible for a mistake, I felt the need to apologize because of how it made other people feel. When I committed myself to apologizing less, I had to figure out what to say instead.
What to Say Instead of ‘I’m Sorry’
Many of us have been taught to say sorry when we make a mistake, but we rarely learn about alternatives we can use. Since the experience I had with my previous employer, I’ve thought of a few ways to avoid saying sorry and provide more constructive responses. Let’s say a coworker emails you to say that they noticed a mistake you made. Instead of saying sorry, consider these responses:
Thanks for catching that! I’ll be sure to correct that before sending it to the rest of the team.
I appreciate your feedback and will look into this.
Thank you for bringing this to my attention.
Many thanks! I will send out a revision shortly.
By incorporating more of these responses into my work communications, I was able to show gratitude, maintain professionalism, and provide an actionable next step to correct the mistake. Most importantly, I felt empowered to take ownership of the mistake without saying sorry.
Changing my thoughts around apologizing also helped me to assert myself in situations when I was not at fault (like that terrible scenario above). So, if you find yourself being blamed for a work-related offense you did not commit and want to provide a constructive response, think about saying:
Thank you for letting me know. I was not involved in this project and am not at fault for this mistake. However, if I can assist you with correcting, please let me know.
I appreciate your attention to this matter, but I cannot take responsibility for this mistake.
I believe there’s some confusion about this and would appreciate the opportunity to clarify.
Each of these responses are honest and direct. Whether you are at fault for a mistake that happens at work or not, it’s important to provide a response that is clear and effective. What I discovered for myself is that taking ownership, offering a solution, and being assertive was a better reflection of me and my work than being sorry.
Today, I’ve maintained that mode of thinking in my freelance career. When a sticky situation arises at work, I focus on being proactive, timely, responsive, and solution-focused. Most importantly, I remember to be patient with myself. As someone who said sorry about way too much in the past, I know that it takes time to change how you respond to making a mistake. Remember that you have the right to own your mistakes and correct them without the need to apologize.