The new administrative worker was polite and mature during her job interview. She came with a glowing recommendation letter from a prior boss. A week into the new job, she made her first mistake.
“When she realized what she had done, she panicked,” her boss recalls. “I mean real panic. She ran into my office and started with ‘I just know you’re going to fire me.’ I told her we all make mistakes. Even though we obviously strive to be perfect in the workplace we cannot achieve perfection. I told her I would not fire her for making a mistake but the real test of character is how mistakes are handled.”
The boss thanked the employee for coming to her with the mishap and said they’d devise a way to prevent this type of oversight from happening in the future. The employee seemed a little relieved and got better as the day went on. Crisis averted.
Except it wasn’t. The same scenario repeated weekly, then multiple times a week.
“She worked herself into such a panic that she might get fired, that eventually after a similar instance, we had to agree that she might just be less stressed to move on to other work,” the boss recalls. “She stressed so much about getting fired that she did get fired.”
Having a job doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry. “Apologizing is a way of taking responsibility for what went wrong or offended someone in some way,” says professional and personal coach Joanne Korman Goldman. “You should apologize if you authentically regret your choices, actions or results, especially if they have done harm to others. Most importantly, see the apology as part of a greater opportunity to learn and grow, rather than a character flaw or personal weakness.”
But you don’t want to apologize yourself to the unemployment line. Here’s a look at why people over-apologize on the job and tips on how to stop.
Sorry if you’ve heard this before.
“People over-apologize because they feel overly-responsible for what happens in the workplace,” Goldman says. “This creates a heightened sense of self-blame and insecurity, which are precursors to a magnified perception of fault.”
Sorry ladies, women are often more likely to over-apologize than their male coworkers. “Women strive for and pride themselves on being highly competent, so they feel personally and deeply at fault when things fall off the rails,” Goldman says. Or, they may feel they’re not good enough or smart enough—the impostor syndrome. “When something goes wrong, they believe the truth about their shortcomings has been uncovered,” she says. “They’re coming clean about self-perceived character flaws as well as what actually happened, resulting in an over-apology.” Also, a common female coping mechanism, Goldman says, is appeasement when something goes wrong. “Apologizing is a form of people-pleasing to smooth things over to avoid conflict,” she says.
Even if you keep your job, over-apologizing may turn you into the workplace scapegoat. “You’ll be blamed for everything because you’ve made yourself overly-responsible for everything,” she says. That pattern of apologizing reaffirms your fear of not being good enough, progressively erodes your self-esteem and deepens, rather than alleviates, your fears, she says. “Worse yet, you’re enrolling other people in discrediting your traits and talents, setting yourself up for fewer chances of advancement in your job,” she says.
Next time you feel tempted to over-apologize, zip your lip. Instead, Goldman says, make four columns. In the first column, write down the event or situation that triggered the need to apologize. In the second, write down you and/or your team's actual responsibilities. In the third, write down what you learned about the situation, yourself or your team. In the last column, write down options/solutions for next time. What would you do differently?
Here’s how that scenario might play out, she says: “My team dropped the ball on meeting the implementation deadline. Ultimately, that was my responsibility. I looked into it and found that our offshore team had holidays we were unaware of in the U.S., causing delayed workflow and the missed deadline. We’ve remedied this by adding all holidays to our calendar so we can factor these days into the project plan. I’m confident this problem won’t happen again.”
Sometimes, you should not apologize at all. Says Goldman: If you weren’t responsible and typically apologize anyway, consider that by accepting an outsized share of responsibility for something that happened, you’re denying someone else the opportunity to apologize and acknowledge their part so they can learn, grow and perform better next time.
How to stop? First you’ll need to change your underlying beliefs and/or self-image—either of low self-worth and impostor syndrome or highly competent and responsible for everything. “Continued awareness of this pattern will help you see it, accept it and change it,” Goldman says. Can’t retrain yourself? No need to apologize. Consider seeking someone who can help you recognize your unique value, build your self-perception and take responsibility in a healthy way, she says.
Remember: you made a mistake; you are not your mistakes.