as a new manager, am I saying “I’m sorry” too much?

A reader writes:

I’m a new (2 weeks) manager at a ~50 person company where I’ve worked for years. In trying to adjust to the role, I’m realizing that I’m the sort of person who says “sorry” a lot. I’m not always doing it to take the blame on myself; I’m often doing it because I think it shows empathy and sometimes makes a situation less confrontational. Do you think this will hurt my effectiveness if I don’t change? I think I can apologize in ways that are still appropriately firm (e.g. “I’m sorry, I know this is piling onto an already-busy week, but I need you to add X to your plate and get it done by Friday”), but am I actually undermining myself by doing this?

If it matters, I’m a man. (I hear this is a more common or more problematic issue for women.) And I’m in my mid 30’s, roughly the same age as the majority of coworkers.

I think it depends 100% on how often you’re saying it.

In the example you gave, where you’re adding something onto an already full plate, it makes sense to acknowledge that. It would be a bad thing if you didn’t acknowledge it.

On the other hand, if you’re apologizing every time you delegate work to someone, that’s going to quickly become weird, because it will start to sound like you feel sheepish about delegating, which will make your employees feel awkward and wonder why you’re not more matter of fact about it.

So it’s balance. The phrase isn’t inherently problematic, but if you feel like you’re saying it constantly, then yeah, I’d rein it in.

And if you’re finding that you’re using it to show empathy, keep in mind you have a bunch of other tools at your disposal to do that. Thanking people, in a genuine way, for taking on extra is one way. Making real efforts to help people manage a high workload is one more. Urging people to take a day or afternoon off when their workload allows it is still another. These things have a much bigger impact than just acknowledging “yeah, this sucks, and I wish it didn’t,” so make sure you’re doing them too.

But again: The phrase itself is fine, in moderation. The overall picture is what you want to pay attention to.

{ 83 comments… read them below }

    1. AdAgencyChick

      “And if you’re finding that you’re using it to show empathy, keep in mind you have a bunch of other tools at your disposal to do that. Thanking people, in a genuine way, for taking on extra is one way. Making real efforts to help people manage a high workload is one more.”

      BINGO. If your people know that you’re also doing everything you can to distribute unpleasant tasks fairly, then those unpleasant tasks aren’t nearly so bad — and people will know that your “I’m sorry” is sincerely meant.

      If a manager says “I’m sorry to ask you to [insert unpleasant task here]” but that task really belongs to someone else and the manager won’t manage (or it’s an unpleasant task only because of mismanagement, as in having to meet a deadline on short notice when the manager knew about the task long before), all the “I’m sorry” in the world won’t stop resentment.

    2. Vdubs

      You have to edit the phrase out of your speech, just as you would when editing unneseccary phrases out of your writing.

      It’s my inclination to start emails with “Hey guys,” or “I’m writing because…” , but those phrases are not needed to express the point, so I take then out.

  1. Nerd Girl

    Just had a conversation with a co-worker about this very thing this morning. We were talking about how she’s an apologizer and I used to be one. Hardest thing ever is biting back an “I’m sorry” after years of habit, but it’s been freeing. Without I’m sorry I also feel like I make less excuses. My apologies always seemed to be “I’m sorry but (insert excuse)”. Oddly, it was a manager at a previous job who pointed out my tendency to do this. He said it made me seem weak and he knew that I wasn’t. A friend and I made a pact to try for a month to not apologize or offer an excuse unless warranted and right away we noticed that the only people who were uncomfortable with the lack of an apology or excuse was us.

    1. BarefootLibrarian

      Nerd Girl – this is me right now! I’m an applicant for an internal management job currently and I worry a bit that my habit of saying “I’m sorry” when there’s nothing to apologize for is going to color peoples’ opinion of my ability to manage. I’m pretty straightforward and I know how to make decisions, but it’s just such a hard habit to break. I think the OP nailed it on the head when he said that it’s a substitute for showing empathy. That’s how I always mean it but not, I suspect, how it’s usually interpreted. For example: “I’m so sorry you got wet outside today in the rain” “I’m sorry that the printer jammed”

      I wish there was another good phrase/word I could substitute for “I’m sorry” to more accurately express what I mean. “How unfortunate” sounds kind of pretentious.

      1. Nerd Girl

        You’re right, it’s hard to find a substitute for “I’m sorry” for those examples. I honestly think in situations like that tone and facial expressions are big into communicating empathy without apologzing. If a co-worker were to walk in after being caught in the rain I would say something like “Oh wow, that’s too bad!” but said with a sympathetic tone and expression. And the printer jam? That’s where offering to help could show empathy.

      2. Mints

        I sometimes use “Oh that’s too bad” but that only works for non serious things or it’ll sound sarcastic. There’s also “That sucks” but it’s not super professional
        (Can we think of more?)

        1. Raptor

          A good ‘ugh, I hate it when that happens’, is what I use for things like, being caught in the rain. Then, offer to help them find a towel.

        2. cv

          I’d use “I’m sorry to hear that” for more serious things, and I almost consider it a different expression than a straight “I’m sorry” because it’s clearly an expression of empathy instead of taking responsibility for anything. People say “I’m sorry for your loss” when hearing of a death, and no one thinks there’s an intended apology for wrongdoing there.

    2. Jamie =^_^= (in lieu of avatar)

      Yep – my first boss and most awesome mentor pulled me aside and told me to knock off the sorrys. If I felt I screwed up and had to say it, then once, and not too apologetically. But he knew I was usually using sorry to mean “I feel bad for you about whatever awful thing you just told me” but he said others take it as a sign of weakness and if you look like you’re willing to take the blame for stuff beyond your control there are plenty of people happy to let you.

      I will always apologize when I’m wrong or I f’ed up – I believe there is no better way to ear credibility. But I did train myself out of the automatic response of “I’m sorry.”

      I don’t like (in others, not a problem for me) “I’m sorry, but here’s some horrible thing I’m about to say or do to you.” If you’re not sorry don’t say it.

      I have taken others aside to tell them to tone this down. People who will keep apologizing for the same mistake over and over making it seem like a WAY bigger deal than it was. I’ve seen other respond to this like a jackals to the underbelly of prey. One apology if needed and on to cooperative resolution and correction of the error – done. No self-flagellating, no hair shirts…it’s annoying and will hurt you.

      1. Chriama

        I agree. I don’t know what it is about apologies, but if someone is truly po’d they’ll use the apology to attack you. It might just be me, but I don’t like giving apologies unless they’re truly earned, because I end up feeling like I did something wrong, even when I know I didn’t.

  2. Lily in NYC

    Over-apologizing is almost a verbal tic. My old boss was the master of it. I once bumped into a wall in his office and he apologized. I was like – it’s not your fault I’m clumsy! It’s a hard habit to break but at least you are aware of it. Alison’s answer is spot on. Now if I could just break my sighing habit. I sigh way too often and I know it’s annoying.

      1. ClaireS

        I was just coming to mention the cultural inclination to apologize. Us Canadians are known for it.

        I do try to reign it in at work but if you bump into me on the street, I almost guarantee I’ll say “sorry”

      2. Felicia

        Haha it is a Canadianism for sure! Here when 2 people bump into each other both of them say sorry regardless of whose fault it is.

    1. OP

      Yeah, it is kind of a “verbal tic” for me, that’s exactly it. I’m able to cut out maybe 70% of it just by being conscious of it. The other 30% is harder because it feels justified in some (possibly legitimate, possibly tortured) way. Focusing on various other forms of empathy seems like a good idea.

      Managing is hard…

      1. Mister Pickle

        If it helps at all, I guess you can see that you’re hardly alone with this!

        What helped me at first was to count the number of times I’d say “sorry” during a day – and then try to winnow it down to zero or 1 time per interaction … and then keep reducing from there.

    2. Jamie =^_^= (in lieu of avatar)

      Well I take a corner outside my office too short at least 3x a week and apologize to the wall before realizing it’s not a person.

      Inanimate objects don’t really hold it against you though, so you can pretty much apologize to them, swear at them, or whisper sweet nothings to them with no career repercussions. (as long as others don’t over here the whispering bit.)

      1. Phyllis

        My kids crack up when I apologize to the dogs if I bump into or step on one of them. (Both small, hard to see when you’re carrying an armload of something.)

        1. Jen RO

          My boyfriend once moved around in his sleep and ended up with his pillow on one of the cats. The cats meowed in protest, and my sleeping boyfriend apologized to him – by name even!

  3. Katie the Fed

    One thing though – there’s nothing quite as powerful as a sincere apology as a boss if you’ve truly screwed up. A lot of supervisors don’t take responsibility when they screw up, and it can go a long way in building trust if you acknowledge that you made a mistake.

    1. Colette

      That’s a good point – and frequent apologies for things that are part of your job or out of your control trivializes an apology when you do need to sincerely apologize.

      1. Nerd Girl

        100% agree with this. My husband apologizes to me (and me alone!) for everything. I know that this comes from how he dealt with his mom growing up. It drives me crazy! We had a big fight a few weeks ago and I made a point of telling him that his apology to me had lost it’s meaning with the frequent “I’m sorry’s”

    2. LBK

      Agreed. I mended a really big screw up with one of my employees by just being honest with her about it, and she was really appreciative about it and said she actually gained respect for me due to the fact that I was willing to make a sincere apology to her rather than trying to just cover my ass.

    3. AnonyMouse

      Yes!! Was just coming down here to say this. I’ve always had so much more respect for bosses/higher-ups/authority figures who were willing to genuinely apologise for their big mistakes, rather than ignoring it or letting someone below them take the blame. No need to compulsively apologise for small inconveniences (although I do understand the temptation as it’s quite a cultural norm where I live!), but a real apology when it actually matters is a really classy thing to do.

  4. Jenny

    I don’t mind the well-placed “I’m sorry . . . ” especially like in your example. It acknowledges that you’re aware the worker has a lot on their plate but that something still needs to be done.

    I really only hate the “i’m sorry” from a boss when they are throwing their boss under the bus. For example, if a boss says “I’m sorry I have to ask you to do this, I know it seems like a waste of time and energy but the VP wants it so we just have to do it.”

    I hear that example fairly often and when you make someone else (higher up) seem like the bad guy, it gives the impression that you don’t have any say or influence with higher-ups and that they can railroad over your wishes and expertise. It says more about the sayer than it does about the VP.

    1. Dulcinea

      Interesting, Jenny. I actually would really appreciate the “I’m sorry” in the example you gave, even more than the example OP gave (where I would appreciate it as well). Do you want to share your thoughts on why it bothers you?

      1. Jenny

        Well, I think it’s generally unprofessional to complain about your supervisors to direct-reports. Also, if your VP is asking you to do something with your staff that you do not agree with or do not see the point of, you should have the autonomy and the respect to convince them otherwise. To disagree with orders but tell your staff “Well, higher ups want it and I can’t change their mind” makes you look powerless – like you don’t have a seat at the table and your opinion isn’t valued.

        1. Who are you?

          LOL! Your example reminds me of parenting. I’m forever on my husband to get him to stop doing this with my kids. He’ll say “I’d let you go to the park, but Momma says no”. Immediately I’m the bad guy even though I haven’t spoken a word. I hate that!!!!

        2. fposte

          I think most of the time middle management can’t actually change it, though. Most of the time when I say stuff like this to my reports it’s some state bureaucracy that we just have to wade through.

          I do get that it’s annoying for people to repeatedly use “Sorry” as a way to exculpate themselves, though, and I’ve seen some that rival dog-blaming for meretriciousness.

  5. Anoners

    Yeah, I’m Canadian and I say “I’m sorry” ALL THE TIME. I’m a walking stereotype. I try to not, but it just comes out. It’s a hard habit to break.

  6. Joey

    I’m not a fan of apologies unless its an apology for a mistake because I was always cynical when I heard them from my bosses- I would tell myself if you’re sorry about giving me the work then don’t give me the work and you won’t have to be sorry.

    Instead, I say something like “I know you’re swamped, but I need you to do me a favor.”

    1. fposte

      But that makes me raise an eyebrow at “favor.” It’s work, right? Not something above and beyond work that they have the prerogative of rejecting? I’m more allergic to that than to “sorry”–which makes me think some of this is a personal call.

      1. OP

        Yeah. I think I find myself apologizing when I’m *stopping* myself from calling something a favor, or from phrasing something as a request when it really does need to get done. Apologizing seems less bad, but perhaps none-of-the-above is better.

      2. Jamie =^_^= (in lieu of avatar)

        Absolutely – I never use favor for a work task. In fact when I notice people have to call on favors to get X done I bring it up, because it means the responsibility needs to be owned by someone.

        Favors are personal.

        1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

          Eh – I do this all the time. People do what I ask them to whether I call it a favor or a mandatory task. Why not be polite and less when it works equally well? If there’s ever a misunderstanding, then I’m quick to make myself clear – and/or on the rare occasion that somebody doesn’t understand this, I won’t’ use it with them. Why not treat people like they will naturally want to be helpful – when they have a track record of being genuinely helpful and willing? I get that this doesn’t work in every – (or most?)- workplaces, but when making requests gets things done, I’d rather make requests than demands.

          1. fposte

            I’m going to get into ridiculous levels of parsing now. I think a favor is more optional than a request which is more optional than a demand, and I think calling it a favor doesn’t make it more polite–you can be polite without phrasing a non-optional requirement as an option. To me, using “favor” isn’t more polite, it’s just untrue. But I’ve also done it occasionally, mostly out of habit, and I don’t care a ton if it’s done to me–I’m just, as I said, parsing.

            I’m also thinking now of Julian Fellowes’ book Past Imperfect, where he talks about the way the aristocracy would phrase the most onerous orders to their servants as favors or indulgences and congratulate themselves on their sensitivity. “Would you mind awfully being a love and bringing up the ponies to the bedroom at 3 a.m. and then cleaning up after them?” It gives an illusion of choice to the inescapable fact that you’re picking up manure in the middle of the night.

    2. reader

      Asking for a favor isn’t such a good idea. Employees/subordinates don’t do favors for the boss. Favors are optional. Assigned work is not.

    3. SusieQ

      If it’s a favour, you ask and I get to decide. If it’s work you are assigning me, it’s not a favour, and calling it one will just make me resent you. We both know perfectly well it’s not.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        So much of this just comes down to personal style and the relationship. Some bosses could say “can you do me a favor” and it would go over fine, even well. Others would say it and people would react the way you are here. It’s really dependent on the relationship and the person.

      2. Joey

        I probably asked for that. You’re right. I guess if you’re cynical about everything no amount of reframing it is going to work.

        1. fposte

          And I think mostly this stuff depends on the context–with somebody you otherwise respect and trust, you’re not going to care if they apologize or use the word “favor.”

      3. Jessica

        I had to have a conversation about this with my boss, because every single time he assigned me work he would preface it with, “Can you do me a favor?” I told him he’s my boss, he can just delegate work to me, it doesn’t have to be a “favor” to him. If he wants me to do something outside the normal duties of my work, then that would be a favor.

    4. Clever Name

      I’m nobody’s boss, so I couch things as favors when I ask the admin staff to do stuff for me all the time. Yeah, it’s technically their job to support the technical staff, but I find it greases the wheels. It helps that I have a good relationship with all of them, and I know most of them really like me.

  7. Kai

    In the OP’s example, this really isn’t bad at all. I can see how it could get old if he says it super frequently, though. I have a coworkers who’s a chronic apologizer, which is where it gets irritating–it gets old to regularly hear “I’m sorry, could I ask you a question” or other instances where an apology isn’t warranted at all.

    OP, simply that fact that you’re aware of this as a possible tendency for yourself speaks volumes for you!

  8. Jennifer

    I’m not a manager so I can’t comment on that, but I apologize up the wazoo at work for everything with customers. Even if I had nothing to do with it, ***they all think I did***, so I find it works great as an ass-kissing technique. “I apologize on behalf of Teapots Inc. that you’re “getting the runaround,” I’m really, really sorry, I’ll do my best to solve your problem even though I know absolutely nothing about this and have no power over it….” etc. Actually, that works pretty well at the rest of the job too.

    Where I get the complaints about apologizing too much is–yes, from men in my non-work life.
    “Why are you apologizing? You didn’t kill my dad.”
    “I’M TRYING TO SHOW SYMPATHY, YOU DUMBASS! JEEBUS! WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO BE SAYING INSTEAD?”

    1. Allison

      To be fair, a lot of places instruct their customer service people to apologize for stuff that’s not their fault, and to specifically say “sorry” in a sincere tone. That was heavily drilled into me when I worked at McDonalds. It seems silly, because it’s not the cashier’s fault the nuggets suck, but you also need to say something that’ll quickly diffuse tension. Not that it works 100% of the time . . .

      And smart people should know when you’re apologizing and when you’re trying to show empathy.

      1. fdgery

        Yeah, as a cashier I always felt that part of my job duties was to apologize for things that weren’t my fault.

      2. LBK

        The first place I ever did customer service for actually trained us NOT to say sorry for things that weren’t our fault or weren’t actually problems, and it was awesome. It took so much pressure off the reps once you got comfortable with it, and I found people let things drop faster. If you say sorry, it sounds more like this was a personal decision or something emotional or like something isn’t working the way it’s supposed. I’m not sorry that this feature doesn’t exist on our site – that’s how it is. I’m stating a fact. No need to apologize.

        It takes some practice and you have to learn to judge when it applies, but once you get it down it’s amazing. You’d be surprised how much more you like customer service when you aren’t constantly apologizing and feeling like you messed up.

    2. fposte

      I think apologizing to customers is different. For one thing, you often *did* do something–it’s just that “you” isn’t Jennifer, it’s Teapots, Inc. To the customer, it doesn’t really matter which part of Teapots, Inc. screwed up and which part is apologizing; it’s all TI to them.

    3. Dulcinea

      A friend who is a doctor told me he has been taught by his bosses that if you make a point to express sympathy/apologize to say to a patient for whatever negative thing they are experiencing, it actually reduces lawsuits. NOTE the important distinction of not apologizing for your actions, but rather saying “I know you are in a lot of pain, so sorry you are going through that” as opposed to “so sorry I botched that operation, I really thought I had it down.”)

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

        Agreed – it’s very deescalating “I’m sorry. This is our mistake, and it shouldn’t have happened that way. We’ll handle this on our end to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else in the future. What can I do for you right now to make it right?” Then people become nice and tell you what they need.

  9. nep

    Seems to me ‘I’m sorry’ is a habit for so many people and has become so common — even for occasions a ‘sorry’ isn’t warranted — that it has largely lost any meaning. I don’t think employees would really see the ‘I’m sorry’ as empathy/respect, as much as they’d see an action that shows empathy/respect.

  10. Allison

    I have a really bad habit for apologizing for every little thing I do wrong, even if it doesn’t even directly impact others and it’s just me being clumsy and not graceful all the time. Nowadays I try to stop myself and say “is this something I need to say ‘sorry’ for? Is there a better way to acknowledge that I negatively impacted someone? Or is it at all necessary to acknowledge?”

    The problem with apologizing for everything is that it dilutes your apologies to the point where they never mean anything, and when you are truly sorry for something you have to really try to make it meaningful or the person will dismiss it.

  11. holly

    today i gave my asst something to do that was pretty annoying (more work for something we thought had been completed, but one part of it was misplaced,) and i phrased it as, “i’m sorry to say that we have more of this [thing] to do.” i was sorry that it unexpectedly appeared, but also i needed him to do it.

  12. Formica Dinette

    Not to pick on OP, but “If it matters, I’m a man” made me LOL. Heck yeah, it matters!

    Actually, points to OP for recognizing that it might matter. :)

  13. Sharon

    Funny story: a couple weeks ago when grocery shopping we had a clerk who said nothing but “I’m sorry” and “thank you”, over and over. It was like this:

    Me: (say nothing but pull cart closer to clerk so he can put the bags in)
    clerk: I’m sorry, thank you miss.
    clerk: (scans two items and puts in bag) Sorry, thank you
    clerk: (scans a couple more items, puts in bag) Thank you, sorry, sorry, thank you
    me: (holds cart still so he can put another full bag in)
    clerk: I’m sorry, thank you miss.
    clerk: (scans items, puts in bag) I’m sorry, thank you
    clerk: thank you, sorry, thank you, sorry, sorry, sorry
    hubby: (pays)
    clerk: thank you, I’m sorry, thank you

    After we were out the door, hubby commented that he remembered we usually avoid that clerk because he’s kind of nutty. I don’t remember him ever doing that before, though. It was bizarre!

  14. Trixie

    Over-apologizing not only demeans an authentic apology but can create a need for constant reassurance. Which just consumes too much energy all the way around between the person apologizing and those around him/her feeling the need to reassure him/her. Not a healthy dynamic.

    1. nep

      Yes. Not healthy or positive in any way.
      The ‘I’m sorry’ thing has become a bit like ‘literally’ — ‘Literally’ is being misused all the time. Again, sapped of any meaning after a while.

      1. Trixie

        And sometimes it becomes a passive-aggressive control issue. Like “I know I’m in the wrong about something but the more I apologize the more everyone else is forced into reassuring me rather than correcting or managing me.” Granted this is an extreme but it’s what comes to my mind.

  15. Artemesia

    I think dropping ‘I’m sorry’ except in cases of a frank apology for an injury to someone is the way to go. Empathy can be conveyed without the sniveling sense that ‘I’m sorry’ conveys when used to introduce delegation of a task. Something as simple as ‘I know this is going to have us working longer hours this week, but it is a critical task for the client.’ conveys ‘I know this is demanding and we know it is important to do’ without the apologetic tone.

    Just drop ‘I’m sorry’ when it refers in any way to work direction. You aren’t ‘sorry’ or guilty, you are just doing the job you are supposed to do.

    1. fposte

      Oh, and my read is very different, with no snivel at all. To me “sorry” is an acknowledgment that this is unpleasant or poorly timed and requires a bit of grace to roll with. It’s not about my unwillingness to own telling people what to do.

  16. NortheastNonprofitDirector

    Several years ago when I was promoted, I made a new rule: I would NOT apologize at work unless it was truly something that mattered and it was truly my fault. It took some effort, but I haven’t used the word “sorry” in an email since 2009, and very rarely verbally. I sometimes “regret” things but I try very hard not to do anything I might be sorry about. I feel that people respect me more and I am now in a senior position and can’t imagine backsliding. FWIW, I am a woman.

  17. Jill

    As a person of faith, I was raised that “I’m sorry” means “I regret what I’ve done and I’m going to make a pointed effort to never do this bad thing again”. So if you’re prefacing things with “I’m sorry” that are things any manager should reasonably be able to ask/expect of their staff, then it makes you look weird. It also makes you look weak -as though you feel that what you’re asking is unfair or unreasonable. My reaction to constant “I’m sorries” would be to think to myself, “Then why are you doing it!!”. Which brings us back to, if it’s reasonable of a manager to ask it, then don’t apologize for it.

    1. Cassie

      My thought is always “you can stuff your sorries in a sack, Mister!” I hate it when people apologize but then keep doing the same (wrong) thing over and over again.

  18. Me

    Stop apologizing. Unless you’ve personally done something awful that calls for it. Empathize if necessary (as in over-overloading employees) but don’t say you’re sorry. Or you’ll be.

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