Most of us have made mistakes, inconvenienced others or rubbed someone the wrong way at work – we might have missed a deadline, forgotten about a meeting, or not responded to a client who was eagerly waiting to hear back from us. While saying “sorry” is probably what’s needed to redeem ourselves in such cases, it’s important to know where to draw the line, because there is such a thing as going overboard with an apology.
Over-apologising – that is, apologising too much or too intensely – is not uncommon in the workplace. It can be hard to move on from knowing that we upset someone or did something wrong (even if the situation was beyond our control).
However, mental health and career experts say that this self-deprecating habit can destroy your confidence at work, make you appear weak or incompetent. and annoy your co-workers, causing them to lose respect for you. The best and most professional way to apologise for a mistake is simply to own up to it and try to fix it.
Over-apologising: Who does it and why?
There are many reasons why someone might over-apologise. It might stem from low self-esteem, so some people apologise more than is necessary to make themselves feel better, or to compensate for what they deem to be their own flaws or failures, says Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness.
Individuals with low self-esteem also tend to worry about what others think. To avoid conflict or negative outcomes, they may feel like they need to apologise more.
Others are just conflict avoidant, and for them, over-apologising may be the best way out of a difficult situation.
And then there are those who are overly empathetic. Dr Lim says that they are more apologetic because they tend to put themselves in others’ shoes and feel bad for the people they’ve upset or inconvenienced.
Finally, we should not overlook the fact that an over-apologetic individual may just be polite.
“In Asian cultures especially, polite people may be more likely to over-apologise, not necessarily because they feel they’re in the wrong, but to express their regret over what happened,” Dr Lim explains.
Unsurprisingly, it is women, and not men, who tend to over-apologise, adds Yeo Chuen Chuen, managing director of Acesence Agile Leadership and author of 8 Paradoxes of Leadership Agility.
“I have met women leaders who over-apologise, and rarely meet male leaders who do the same,” she points out.
“They may over-apologise out of habit, because they feel inadequate or unworthy, or out of guilt – for instance, they may feel bad about imposing on their team and giving them extra work, so they’ll say, ‘Sorry to bother you’.”
A 2010 study by the University of Waterloo found that women have a lower threshold for offensive behaviour than men. This means that they’re likely to apologise more than men. Chuen Chuen says that if we can surmise patterns from the study, it also means that men might expect people to apologise less, while women expect people to apologise more.
How over-apologising can affect your career
According to Ruchi Parekh, a Singapore-based life coach who runs her own eponymous coaching company, being over-apologetic at work can harm your professional reputation. You may come across as being incompetent or unable to handle stressful situations, and as a result, your superiors and peers may not trust you with important projects or assignments.
“It also undermines your credibility if you’re constantly apologising for minor issues, as you may come across as being unsure of your own abilities,” Ruchi adds.
“When you lose your credibility, you may find that you no longer have as much influence over others. This can make it hard for you to assert yourself, and advocate for your ideas and decisions.”
It also undermines your credibility if you’re constantly apologising for minor issues, as you may come across as being unsure of your own abilitiesRuchi Parekh
Your professional relationships with your peers, juniors and supervisors may also be affected. Ruchi says that these people may feel uncomfortable around you, due to their perception of you as either subservient or lacking in authority. This may impact your productivity and efficiency, especially when you keep apologising unnecessarily or for things that are out of your control.
And, the more you continue to apologise, the more attention you draw to your mistake, which is something you want to avoid.
Learn to say “sorry” professionally (and sincerely)
If you do have to say “sorry” at work, there’s a right way to do it. Certainly, you could – and should – apologise, but Ruchi says not to overdo it to avoid undermining your authority and damaging your professional integrity.
Start by accepting responsibility for what went wrong, and validating the feelings of the person you’ve wronged. It’s important to acknowledge your role without blaming anyone or the situation. Remember to be sincere about your apology, too, as it shows that you understand what happened, and that you have empathy for the person you affected. It also shows that you can handle the situation or mistake with confidence. Express regret, but don’t go overboard. For instance, you could say: “I’m sorry this happened…” or “I’m sorry if I offended you”.
Next, because it’s more meaningful to apologise with actions rather than with words, you should focus on coming up with one or more solutions to rectify the problem, Ruchi adds. Communicate your intentions clearly and confidently to maintain your authority. Finally, when you believe that the situation has been resolved, check in with the other person to make sure that they are satisfied with the solution. If they are, that should be the end of it, and there’s no reason to bring up the issue or apologise again.
Dr Lim agrees that making restitution is more important than continuing to apologise.
“Put your energy and effort into managing the fallout from your mistake and doing damage control, so as to improve the situation or make things right,” he says.
“Trying to salvage the situation would be way more useful to you and your colleagues than apologising over and over again.”
Text: Sasha Gonzales/Her World