Last week I was on a corporate conference call led by a woman. She began her presentation by saying, “I want to begin by apologizing if I’m not as clear as Don, who normally leads the calls, since it’s my first time.”
She proceeded to give a clear and lucid presentation.
Why did she kick herself in the shin with her opening statement? Why do women over-apologize at work?
I first noticed the trend 15 years ago, when I worked on Wall Street. My manager, an intern, and I—all women—met. Within 15 minutes, we had apologized to each other at least 15 times. It was my “aha” moment. I stopped the meeting and asked, “Have you noticed how often we’ve said ‘I’m sorry’ in this meeting?”
They stared back at me like I had said the firm would merge with its rival (which it did a few years later).
I continued, “I mean, it started at the beginning. Rosalie, you apologized for being a minute late. Then we all apologized when we shifted seats. Then…” I ticked off 5 or 6 more apologies. “Do you think it has something to do with us being women?” I asked, knowing that the answer, for me at least, was YES.
We all laughed and continued the meeting, saying the “Sorry” word less.
After the meeting I asked another female consultant, a Generation Xer, if she noticed how much women apologize. She said she did, and made a special point never to apologize at work.
“Never?” I asked, incredulous.
“Never,” she replied. “Guys never do. Why should I?”
“Well, what if you make a real blooper of a mistake? Don’t you apologize then?”
She answered, “The most I’ll say is that it’s unfortunate that such-and-such happened. I never, ever utter the words ‘I’m sorry.’”
I tried her approach, and it didn’t work for me. Sometimes I can be a jerk, and not apologizing didn’t feel right. Besides, I’ve had male managers—well, one at least—who apologized to me upon occasion and that endeared me to him. It made me work harder and trust him more. Couldn’t the same happen with those who worked with me? Couldn’t a heartfelt apology heighten their trust?
I mean, aren’t women allowed to make mistakes too?
So I’ve taken the middle path. I apologize when necessary. But like a hawk, I notice when I belch “I’m sorry.” For many women (like it is for me), it’s a habit to apologize. And like any habit, it can be broken. The good news is that, by just noticing, you can break the habit.
Would you like to join me in the middle way? Consider these steps:
1. On Day 1, count the number of times at work that you say the S word. After each blurt, quickly decide whether it was automatic or not.
2. For 4 straight days, notice when you say “Sorry” but you don’t have to count the number of times.
3. On Day 5, count again. What’s the difference between Day 1 and Day 5?
If this seems overwhelming given all else that you do, just notice and do nothing. Simply notice when you say, “I’m sorry.”
Whatever you notice or don’t notice, will you please, please, please promise me that you won’t begin a presentation with an apology?
On behalf of women everywhere, thank you!
(For more tips on career enjoyment, visit www.pinkedge.com)
Marina Spence founded The Pink Edge (www.pinkedge.com) in 2007 to help women change their work or their attitude toward work.
Her book, Make Every Day a Friday! The Joy of Connecting Who You Are With What You Do (Morgan-James, February, 2009) will help you to successfully navigate the world of career and purpose, and leave you with solutions, practical actions, and spiritual insights. Road tested during Marina’s years in the aggressive, fast-paced atmosphere of Wall Street, the book reveals the Stress-Free Career Change System. The system helps women learn what it is they love, while loving what it is they do.