We suck at apologizing. And it’s no wonder. From pre-K to politics, contradictions about how and when to express remorse surround us.
A bad start
As young kids, one of the first phrases we are prompted to say is, “I’m sorry”. In parallel to lessons espousing honesty, we are taught that apologizing is not only an expectation, it is also a fast and easy way to appease others. Rather than learning to say sorry when we feel genuine culpability, we employ apologies as a tool to avoid (or expedite) punishment. So, at a young age we learn that saying we’re sorry is a moment with little meaning and a short shelf life. A perspective that does not serve us well later in life.
On One End: A Lack of Accountability
A look at public discourse paints a grim picture of leadership accountability. The recent Atlantic article “Sorry, Not Sorry: Why public figures stopped apologizing” shares a few examples of the many egregious mea culpa omissions and contradictions that are part of our daily lives. In the business world there seems to be varying appetites for honest admissions of fault. Words like transparency and vulnerability have joined the corporate lexicon, opening some space for sharing our imperfections. But the business world generally remains a place where people worry more about losing stakeholder confidence than modeling authenticity.
On The Other End: A Ritual
Perhaps less savvy than serial non-apologizers, ritual apologizers risk career capital by infusing “I’m sorry” into daily discourse. Women, in particular, are apt to default to the phrase as a way to smooth out emotional wrinkles with others and regulate an even playing field. The problem? The more you apologize, the more others think you are in the wrong.
Here’s how to suck less at apologizing:
Look and listen
Repercussions of our missteps are not always immediately apparent. Look for any emotional wake your actions may leave behind, ask questions to understand other perspectives, and identify your contributions.
Do you regret something you did? If so, own it. Admit fault and express regret—without equivocating. If you worry about compromising your credibility, follow up with assurance about your skills, intent, or behavior.
Don’t be a “faux-poligizer”
If you don’t have a genuine regret to express, avoid giving a “faux-pology”. Preparing to say, “I’m sorry, but. . . “ is a good indicator that you might be better served by saying nothing.