The answer to both questions is related to the different workplace contexts in which apologies are delivered, and typically by people of different genders. “‘Sorry’ is often used by women in situations where no real transgression or mistake has been made,” says speech expert Amy Hubbard, PhD, chair of the department of communicology at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. “Instead, they might say sorry as a preemptive qualification for a contribution they’re about to make or for simply making the contribution at all, as in, ‘Sorry, but I just wanted to say…’”
“‘Sorry’ is often used by women in situations where no real transgression or mistake has been made.” —Amy Hubbard, PhD, speech expert
In this case, the “sorry” would certainly be “diminishing your authority and undercutting your value before you’ve really said anything,” says Dr. Hubbard. But this reality speaks more to the forces that have long worked to silence women at work (and, in turn, cement those unnecessary “sorries” as automatic or habitual speech) rather than some silly tendency among women to over-apologize. In fact, several studies have shown that women are often punished for speaking up at work—hence, the common, "Sorry to interject!"—while men are consistently rewarded for doing so.
- Amy Ebesu Hubbard, PhD, Amy Ebesu Hubbard, PhD, is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Communicology at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. The main areas of her teaching and research focus on conflict management, nonverbal communication, interpersonal relationships, and deceptive communication....
- Tasha Eurich, PhD, organizational psychologist, executive coach, researcher, and author of Bankable Leadership and Insight
- Tracy Brower, PhD, Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRW is a sociologist studying work life fulfillment and happiness. She is the author of two books. The Secrets to Happiness at Work provides insights for joyful work and life and how to choose and create...
Nixing the purely reflexive “sorry” as a woman, then, is certainly one step toward leveling the playing field, but the onus is also on folks who identify as men and people of all other gender identities to create an empathetic workplace in which that needless “sorry” doesn’t instinctively seem so, well, needed. This would also open the door for the apologies that actually are essential to flow more freely.
In other words? Fewer unnecessary apologies flying around makes a necessary apology read more like a brave vulnerability than a weakness. “Part of the reason women, in particular, are told not to say sorry is just a factor of quantity,” says Dr. Hubbard. “When you’re used to saying sorry for everything, then a sincere, appropriate ‘sorry’ doesn’t have as great of a capability to generate the forgiveness and empathy that it should.” So, it’s not about avoiding “sorry” at all costs, but rather learning when, exactly, to say sorry at work (and really meaning it when you do).
When saying sorry at work is something you can—and should—do
If you’ve actually made an error on a task or done something that disadvantages someone else, it's a good idea to say sorry at work. That could refer to any situation from missing a deadline or a key part of an assignment to showing up late or unprepared to a meeting.
“Apologies can build credibility, rather than erode it.” —Tracy Brower, PhD, sociologist
To wit, apologizing in any of the above circumstances isn’t just permissible, but recommended. “Apologies can build credibility, rather than erode it,” says sociologist Tracy Brower, PhD, author of The Secrets to Happiness at Work. “No one is perfect, and apologies are evidence that a colleague or leader recognizes a mistake and is willing to take responsibility for it.” And that’s a quality that people value in a coworker or boss, she adds.
By contrast, not apologizing when an apology is due can have just the opposite effect. “Failing to apologize can make you look weak or un-self-aware,” says organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, PhD, author of Insight. That is, you’re coming across as either not confident enough to own up to what you did or not able to recognize that you made a mistake or hurt someone’s feelings.
Of course, it’s possible that your threshold for what, exactly, qualifies as a mistake or transgression may be different from that of someone else in your workplace. In fact, part of the reason why women say sorry more than men is because research shows they tend to perceive more actions as offenses that deserve an apology. So, closing the gendered "sorry gap" is just as much about women being intentional with their apologies (and, yes, knowing when not to say sorry for a non-offense) as it is about men broadening their perspective of what could constitute an offense (and knowing when to say sorry for actions that may be perceived as such).
Why we need to normalize well-warranted apologies in the workplace
Once everyone in the workplace is saying sorry only for legitimately apology-worthy things, each “sorry” can be more effectively taken as sincere. And according to Dr. Hubbard, this willingness to accept necessary apologies when they’re given has to flow from the top. “If there are a bunch of known or anticipated negative consequences to apologizing for a mistake, employees won’t want to be truthful and own up to errors,” she says. That kind of culture just reinforces the stigma surrounding apologies, which further disadvantages women at work (who, again, are more likely to apologize overall).
Instead, the response to a warranted apology in the workplace should include an acknowledgement of the courage it took to come forward, followed by a recognition of the error, and an orientation toward the future, says Dr. Hubbard. “That might mean asking, 'Why do you think this happened, and what can we do to keep it from happening again?'” she says. “This troubleshooting framework for responding to an apology keeps it out of the, ‘That’s horrible, I can’t believe you did that’ territory, which is what tends to make ‘sorry’ such a bad word in the first place.”
When “sorry” is divorced from that unnecessarily negative connotation at work, a “forgiveness climate” can take hold, says Dr. Eurich, “which is associated with stronger resilience, collaboration, and performance.” Similar workplace benefits also spring from empathy, which is a key part of any sincere apology, says Dr. Brower: “An apology is not only recognition of a mistake but also recognition of how your behavior may have affected someone else.” And that’s a powerful reason, in and of itself, for saying “I’m sorry” at work whenever you truly mean it.
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