November 25, 2014

Sorry to Bother You Ladies – But Do You Over Apologize?

over apologize

Is “I’m sorry, but…” your default introduction to almost any person or situation? Do you apologize when you introduce a new idea in a meeting, ask employees to do something that’s part of their jobs, or bump into a fire hydrant?

If so, over apologizing could be hurting your brand, your image and your business, warns Aimee Cohen, author of Woman UP! Overcome the 7 Deadly Sins that Sabotage Your Success. I spoke with Cohen about over apologizing, which she believes is out of control among women in the workplace.

* * * * *

over apologizeSmall Business Trends: Why do you think women in business tend to over apologize?

Aimee Cohen: The biggest reason is that we’re taught, and praised for being nice and polite. Men, on the other hand, are rewarded for being more assertive and direct.

Women generally want to keep the peace and to avoid conflict. We also place an enormous importance on being liked, and nothing goes better with being a “people-pleaser” than an abundance of impulsive and indiscriminate over apologizing.

Small Business Trends:  How can it hurt your credibility and your business when you over apologize?

Aimee Cohen: Excessive apologizing is perceived as a sign of weakness, a lack of confidence and competence, and an inability to lead and make difficult decisions. It’s a sure-fire way to lose the respect of your industry and colleagues.

Small Business Trends:  What steps should a woman entrepreneur take to break this habit?

Aimee Cohen: The first step is awareness. I have my clients keep an apology journal to track the number of apologies and the circumstances in which the apology was made. Was the circumstance apology worthy, or was it simply an impulsive reaction?

The next step is to learn a new language. Practice saying key words and phrases to appropriately replace the career killing, ‘I’m sorry.’

The last step is to take a breath, analyze the situation, and decide whether or not you’ve committed a serious offense or egregious error worthy of an apology. It’s easy to be an extremist or an absolutist. This is not an issue of “to apologize or not to apologize.” The issue is when to apologize. Apologizing and practicing basic common courtesy is a virtue, but it’s also a slippery slope.

Small Business Trends:  What can women learn from men in the business world about apologizing?

Aimee Cohen: Men do apologize, but only after they’ve identified the behavior as offensive.

Women can learn a lot from men in this regard and start maintaining a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive, or apology worthy, behavior. Apologizing and accepting responsibility is a critical characteristic when it comes to strong leadership. Women can learn to be more discerning and exercise greater restraint when it comes to saying, “I’m sorry.”

Small Business Trends:  Other than “I’m sorry,” are there other phrases or behaviors that women tend to use in the business world that undermine credibility? What are some phrases and behaviors to use instead?

Aimee Cohen: Learning more effective, and less damaging, phrases and behaviors to replace “I’m sorry” is critical to modifying the behavior. Try saying, “Excuse me,” “Pardon me,” “Can you say that again?” or “That’s too bad.” Or even, “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out,” or asking, “What can we do differently next time?”

You can also embrace the idea that “silence is golden.” Instead of just blurting out an apology, get more comfortable with an uncomfortable silence. You don’t always need to fill the void with an apology.

Small Business Trends:  How can women business owners help their female employees stop themselves when they’re about to over apologize? 

Aimee Cohen: First, they can be positive role models and demonstrate how and when, successful women apologize.

Second, they can provide valuable feedback, holding up the mirror to their female employees and pointing out when they’ve crossed the line into over apologizing.

Third, they can implement an effective mentoring program within their businesses, and specifically have the issue of over apologizing on the agenda.

Sorry Photo via Shutterstock

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Rieva Lesonsky


Rieva Lesonsky Rieva Lesonsky is a staff writer for Small Business Trends covering employment, retail trends and women in business. She is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media company that helps entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses. Follow her on Google+ and visit her blog, SmallBizDaily, to get the scoop on business trends and sign up for Rieva’s free TrendCast reports.

6 Reactions

  1. I think it is because ladies are raised to think that they are lower than other people and that they have to be submissive. But saying sorry is not all that bad. It only becomes bad when it becomes a tool to make up for things that you cannot do or you become to insecure. You have to see the line between confidence and humility without overcompensating.

    • Have you seen the new Pantene advert? It shows women in different situations apologising, including in a meeting. It’s probably on YouTube somewhere.

      I know I say sorry when I don’t need to. It’s something I learned. Something the world taught me.

  2. Great article. I know a couple women who’d really benefit from reading this.

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