Why I now think twice before saying sorry in the workplace

Before leaving a previous employer, I asked my team to provide feedback on my leadership style so I could apply my learnings to my new job and beyond. Most of the responses I received back were either positive reviews or constructive suggestions I was already aware of and working on.

But, there was, however, one new piece of guidance. “Don’t say sorry so much.”

At first, I was shocked. How could saying, “I’m sorry” be considered an area of improvement? Fortunately, I didn’t have to guess and ponder too long as my employee followed up her statement with supporting details and insight.

This team member (whom I am internally grateful for) informed me that my frequent “I’m sorries” jeopardized some of my credibility when I first took over the team. She said many people interpreted my apologies as a weakness and a sign I was unable to make things happen.

After I reflected on my employee’s words of wisdom, I completely understood how my apologies could have impacted people’s perception of me. Saying “I’m sorry” was my way to convey empathy and sensitivity if I had a hard message to deliver to the team. While my intention was good the outcome was poor.

“I’m sorry” over-personalized my messages and also gave people the impression I may actually have something to be sorry about (i.e. that what I was conveying was in fact “my fault”). Since learning this valuable lesson, I am more cautious of when I apologize and say “I’m sorry.” If I have something to be sorry for, then I apologize, but if I want others to know I empathize with their concerns or situation, I now say “I understand.”

Danielle Clark is a human resources manager with more than 10 years of HR and customer service experience in healthcare and retail organizations. Her work with Fortune 500 companies, in addition to a diverse professional and academic background, has trained Clark to be results-driven, people-focused and a thought-provoking leader. Her goal is to educate and inspire professionals to change their way of thinking. She is also an adjunct professor, active community volunteer, wife, mother and passionate lifelong learner.

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