How Women Can Tame the Apology Reflex at Work

Female business owner

Making Apologies Powerful

Q: I’m a female senior IT professional, and the older I get, the more I notice how often I apologize during the day. I consider that I have good interpersonal skills, but I wonder if apologizing frequently is undermining my reputation. How and when do you recommend your clients apologize at work? Do you find women apologize more than men?

A: Yes, research on language indicates women apologize profusely more than men do. You are also right that there is a time and place when apologies are useful and many occasions where an apology will undermine you. The truth about where and when to apologize may surprise you.

Women apologize more than men typically because women learn to flatten social hierarchies and men learn to create social hierarchies. A woman may downplay her accomplishments while her male colleague will name-drop and inflate his achievements.

Work is obviously a game in which establishing yourself as superior in the pecking order matters. When women are busy trying to be humble and not stand out they are not given raises, promotions or plum opportunities. Men are naturally good at this game of king of the hill. Women often try to pretend this game is not going on.

When women apologize automatically they do undermine their respect because they are often admitting responsibility for events that have nothing to do with them. If women take the blame, others are happy to make them the scapegoat for problems. You do not want to encourage people to blame you or think you are bowing and scraping.

The optimal time to use an apology is to take responsibility to improve an interpersonal conflict. Anytime any of us can say something like, “I can see that I could have sent an additional email to remind you,” we are smoothing over the conflict. The other person will admit a second email should not have been necessary and assume responsibility for his or her part of the problem.

Ironically, when we get in an intense power struggle at work is the time we are least likely to apologize because we are right and the other person is obviously wrong. Our conversation then focuses on getting the other party to admit they are wrong and fiercely defending our ego. You can see why this strategy will fail. No one will expect you to apologize for anything during a power struggle in which will give you the huge tactical advantage of surprise.

An apology during a power struggle for anything you could have done better or differently shifts the entire conversation toward problem solving and away from the blame game. Thus why it is brilliant to say, “I owe you an apology,” and then point out anything you could have done that would have helped. People will automatically and normally follow suit and admit what they could do better and, wham, you are on to fixing the problem.

Using apology as a strategy to dissolve power struggles means you have to honestly take stock of your contribution, no matter how small, to a problem. You will have to give up defending your actions internally to see anything you might have done differently.

At first you may feel uncomfortable limiting your apologies only to power struggles. You’ll find reserving apologies for the situations where very few people’s egos will allow them to apologize will give you great respect, effectiveness and solutions when before there were chronic conflicts.

The last word(s)

Q: I’ve always heard honesty in the best policy, but most of the time in my workplace honesty seems to just create conflict. Is there advice you give your clients about honesty?

A: Yes, naked honesty is often just what people do when they don’t have enough skills or self-knowledge to avoid blurting out blaming statements. I recommend you think about what outcome you seek and speak to create that result and skip the honest outbursts.


(Article written by Dr. Daneen Skube)