How to Screw Up Your Career in 5 Easy Steps: Apologizing for Anything and Everything

This is the second post in a series of 5 on how women - and how I - have committed deep career mistakes that hold us back in our trajectories toward success. The first post was about failing to obtain information in writing, and becoming the proverbial "squeaky wheel."

Mistake #2: Unnecessary Apologies and Constantly Accepting the Blame

For some of us, particularly women who were raised to be polite and considerate, the urge to apologize and make things “right” was ingrained in us at a young age. We say “sorry” when we bump into a stranger, “sorry” when we say something that hurts someone’s feelings, and “sorry” when we create an inconvenience that impacts somebody else. It’s common courtesy to make amends, butthere is a fine line between polite apologizing and the kind of apologizing that ruins business careers by turning you into a scapegoat for everything. And, unfortunately for most women, because apologizing is simply part of their DNA, they often have no idea that they’re unconsciously ruining their careers by apologizing inappropriately in the workplace.

When we apologize workplace, we unconsciously take responsibility for situations that are our of our control. Oftentimes, women especially want to avoid conflict and keep the peace at work. We attempt to maintain consistency by apologizing for any unexpected change to the norm. But why should we bear the personal burden and faults of normal business challenges when, in most situations, there is a perfectly justifiable and satisfactory business reason for the news we’re about the share? When we take on unnecessary responsibility for the actions of others, we assume a caretaker and scapegoat role, lowering our perceived position and competence to the parties to whom we are apologizing.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to mitigate this often innate behavior: replace the “I’m sorry” with a different introduction, salutation, or acknowledgement of the other party.

1. I'm About to Bother You

What we say: “I’m sorry to bother you right now, do you have a few minutes to talk?”

What we mean: “I really need you RIGHTNOW, boss, it’s pretty urgent and I can’t move forward unless you bless this decision.”

What we SHOULD say: “I know you’re busy today, but do you have a few minutes to talk?”

Why this is important: Don’t apologize for needing to speak with your boss or a busy colleague. We are all busy. We often unconsciously say “I’m sorry” to acknowledge that our needs may be intruding on someone else’s time. Instead of apologizing, acknowledge the other person’s busy schedule and make your request.

2. I'm Really Freaking Busy Doing Work - Lots of it

What we say: “I’m really sorry that I didn’t get Project X done today, I’ve been so busy with other projects and customers.”

What we mean: “Ugh, I told Ms. Boss that I’d have this done today, but that really needy customer keeps screwing up my schedule. I hope she isn’t mad.”

What we SHOULD say: “Project X took precedence because the customer called in with an urgent request, but I’ll have Project Y complete tomorrow.”

Why this is important: You can’t control last minute changes in priorities, especially when it comes to customers and important fluctuations that are out of your control. Do not apologize for being forced to reprioritize one body of work over another, however, make sure to actively communicate these changes to all relevant parties proactively to ensure that no one is left in the dark.

3. I Have a LOT of Information to Share

What we say: “Sorry that this presentation is so long, but there is a lot of important information that you should hear in these 25 slides.”

What we mean: “This meeting is going to take way longer than you planned. And I didn’t prepare very well, so I want to warn you up front that it’s going to take me a long time to share this information.”

What we SHOULD say: “I have 25 slides to present to you, and will commit to 30 minutes plus questions. This information is really important and I appreciate your attention.”

Why this is important: Doing a mediocre job before a meeting or presentation isn’t something to apologize for – it’s something you shouldn’t do at all. If you’re going to present, do it well and be prepared, respecting everyone’s time. If you do indeed need to share copius amounts of information, make darn sure that it’s important, as succinct as possible, and set the audience’s expectations that it will be a long haul.

 4. I Have Absolutely No Idea How to Answer that Question

What we say: “I don’t know how to get ahold of him / where the file is / when she is getting back to the office, sorry!”

What we mean: “I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think I really should know the answer, so let me apologize so that you don’t get upset with me.”

What we SHOULD say: “I don’t know when Mr. Stevens is getting back, but I can let him know you were looking for him,” or “I haven’t seen the Acme Corp file in quite some time, but when I do some filing today, if I see it, I will let you know.”

Why this is important: You actually are not sorry that you don’t know every answer to every question – so don’t apologize for not being a human encyclopedia of company information. Even if it’s your job to know where something or someone is, offer to make the situation right by finding the missing person or thing, but don’t apologize.

Ultimately, we still need to be polite in the workplace. Say you’re sorry if you do something truly wrong or if you accidentally hurt someone or cause a problem. But make sure that you don’t just throw out the “S” word to avoid conflict or buy yourself some time. By altering this simple behavior, your true apologies will mean more and your business acumen and presence won’t be called into question every time you are presented with a challenge.

Photo Credit: Florian on Flickr. CC licensed flickrcc.net.