How to Stop Apologizing and Start Leading

Women, you know the drill. You have a question for your boss or a coworker so you lead with an apologetic “I’m sorry to bother you” before asking. Someone is standing in your way at the grocery, or in the hallway, and you say “I’m sorry” as you pass them or as they move aside to accommodate you. Someone hasn’t provided you with what you need for your job and you ask them again, leading with an apology for reminding them.

For some reason, we women are conditioned to apologize for having ideas, needing things, and causing any inconvenience to others, no matter how small. It seems polite, but this behavior is hurting us in the workplace. Here are some easy changes you can make to replace these “me” centered apologies with “other centered” gratitude, or just plain clarity.

Replace My Mistake with Great Catch

We all make mistakes and when we do, it’s important to own up to them. Transparency and vulnerability are important qualities in a leader. But apologizing constantly can undermine your leadership role. For example, if someone notices an omission, a typo or a minor mistake in something you’ve prepared, instead of apologizing for making the mistake, thank them for their great catch and assure them you will fix it. I’m not talking about a colossal screwup here – for these you absolutely should apologize if you’ve caused someone else pain or harm. But if someone catches a minor mistake, acknowledge their contribution rather than going overboard with the “I’m sorry” responses. You won’t look so needy and they will be acknowledged for their contribution.

Replace Sorry I’m Late with Thanks for Waiting!

First, let me say I am almost never late for meetings I’ve coordinated and scheduled. Arriving and starting on time shows respect for your coworkers and professionalism. That being said, there are times when people are going to be unavoidably late. It might be their own boss keeping them on a call or in another meeting, or it could be a healthcare worker who is late due to circumstances beyond his or her control. In these cases, begin with a short apology, but make sure to thank those there for waiting for you. It’s important to acknowledge their consideration for you.

Replace Requests with Directives

This suggestion isn’t about apologizing, but it is about removing ambiguous mixed messages from your directions. When you need your team to provide something to you, a report for example, replace “can you possibly have that report to me by Friday?” with “Please have this report to me by Friday.” Then follow up to make sure they have everything they need to complete it and make sure you are available for questions along the way. A leader’s job is to provide the tools and support necessary to make sure your team can do their jobs effectively. When we use questions instead of directives it can confuse the message and take away from your leadership of the project.

Practice Makes Perfect

The thing is, doing these things might feel weird at first, even like you’re being rude! That’s the conditioning at play. You aren’t being rude to thank others for waiting, for catching mistakes and for being clear. You aren’t being “masculine” either. You’re doing your job. Let’s all stop apologizing and start leading. 

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Also leave a comment for me with your thoughts about the subject. I’d appreciate your feedback.

2 thoughts on “How to Stop Apologizing and Start Leading

  1. This has been huge for me.
    Do you have x minutes for some questions regarding x? Instead of— Sorry to interrupt but I have a few questions if you don’t mind.

    And I have started being very intentional about wording to my team:
    Suggestion: here is one way to do it; you get to pick.
    Recommendation: here is the way I would do it.
    Directive or Assignment: here is what/how and you need to do this by the deadline given.
    I have found this to work pretty well.
    Thanks for the information.

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