Things go wrong at work.
When they do—if you’re like many of the women I work with, coach, or know personally—you probably apologize and say, “I’m so sorry. It won’t happen again.”
Learning from your mistakes is one of the best ways to upskill yourself. That’s why how you handle those missteps when they happen is so important. While apologizing can be an almost automatic reaction, it’s often the wrong reaction.
Friends don’t let friends make bad situations worse. You will mess up again at work. When that happens, I will not allow you to say “sorry” before considering these three things:
1. Flip the script from an apology to accountability. There is a time for apologies and there is a time for accountability. Expressing that you understand you made the wrong call and how you handle it goes much further in reminding people that you are a trusted partner.
The next time you have to take ownership, lose “I’m sorry” and replace it with this three-sentence talk track, Mad-Libs style:
I’m disappointed about the impact [insert your decision or action] had on [insert the client, organization, or outcome of a project].
Next time I will [insert the different decision you will make or action your will take in the future].
Here’s my plan about where we go from here [insert next steps you can take to mitigate any negative impact].
Pro tip: if this talk track feels too intense for the mistake you’ve made, it probably is. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. Rather, make a (silent) note of the lessons learned and move on.
2. Saying sorry when you don’t mean it undermines your credibility. I will never forget an intervention-style team meeting a boss called about 5 years ago for our mostly female team. “We have a problem,” the boss started, and I genuinely couldn’t imagine where she was going with this. Our team was full of high-performers and our numbers were off the charts.
… “You need to stop saying I’m sorry when you talk to clients. Nine out of 10 times, you have nothing to be sorry for and you’re undermining your credibility.”
It was such a lightbulb moment for me. This was a job where we spent our time flying around the country meeting with 50-and-60-year-old, C-suite men and negotiating six-figure deals. Walking in as 20-and-30-something women, the stakes around our executive presence and credibility were high. We couldn’t afford these self-inflicted wounds.
But it doesn’t end there. That external credibility is just as important as building internal credibility with your direct reports, peers, and managers.
A few years ago, media guru Fran Hauser typed the word “sorry” in her Sent folder at work. When Hauser saw just how many times she had written "sorry" in internal emails she was stunned, “it was so clear to me that I had accidentally been putting myself in a weak position by apologizing for these trivial things.”
Women already have to work harder to build credibility and build their brand. Don’t throw away what you’ve built with gratuitous apologies.
3. Save sorry for when you really mean it. There are times you mess up and it really mattered.
Perhaps you are thinking about one of those moments right now. Maybe you’re still unsure and that’s okay. When in doubt, here are four instances where “sorry” is required: the organization lost money, you broke somebody’s trust, you hurt somebody’s feelings, you missed a make-or-break deadline.
When the time comes, do say sorry. Say it sincerely and without caveats. Here’s the secret for how to move forward: make sure when you give that apology you also take accountability. Say you’re sorry for what you did, the impact it had, why it won’t happen again, and what you’re going to do to make it right.
When you’ve saved “sorry” for when you really mean it, it actually means something—rather than ringing hollow like the empty (and wasted) “sorry’s” that came before it.