How to Stop Apologising and Start Asking for Forgiveness

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Women apologise more than men – so the accepted wisdom goes (as does significant research to be fair). Women are therefore told to become more confident and not to apologise so much. Yet exhorting women to simply stop doing things and be more confident isn’t that helpful for a number of reasons:

1. Those behaviours may serve them well when used at times in their careers/lives
2. Confidence is not always the issue (confidence can look different in women)
3. It is based on a deficit model that assumes women are doing things wrong and this can shut down a growth mind-set.
4. And because well, apologising is a good thing.

The more useful questions to ask yourself are:

  • Do you need to apologise?
  • When do you do it?
  • Why do you it?

The solution to this ‘girls apologise too much’ finger-wave is to become conscious of why we do things, the effect of that behaviour on ourselves and others, and with that awareness to become more intentional about what we do. The purpose being to be our best self, which in turn creates our best leadership self, and therefore to have our most powerful leadership impact.

Research (Psychological Science 2010) suggests that men apologise less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour. But rather than beating ourselves up about that or berating men we need to make sure we:

a) Are aware of what we are apologising for (does it warrant an apology)
b) Understand the impact of our apologising – positive and negative
c) Become intentional about what we are sorry for so we can use our apologies with power and potency.

What does apologising do?

Apologising is really important. Reconciliation is important. Taking responsibility for a hurt you’ve caused is important. It shows respect and humility, it builds trusted and connected relationships.

Apologising impacts all of our interpersonal interactions. It softens. That’s often why we do it. That’s also why we can get into an apology autopilot that can diminish our impact and our power. With the best of intentions to oil the relationship wheels as women leaders we often use ‘sorry’ language.

Dr Tara Swart author of The Source notes the habit of apologising presents as a weakness at work – in all relationships actually. That women’s socialisation tends towards a passive voice and people-pleasing behaviour that can lead to compulsive apologising.  It makes us more likeable and less threatening and we know as women in leadership roles that is as important as our competence, but it can also diminish us if we do it on autopilot – when it simply trips off the tongue.  It can erode our sense of self and it leaks into how others perceive us without us knowing it.

We need to break that habit and apologise when it really matters. Apologising and asking for forgiveness is so powerful it is down to us to do this with intention and potency. Click To Tweet
What we need to stop apologising for: 
So stop apologising for:
  • being different or ‘other’
  • for doing your best and not feeling it is good enough,
  • for having children you put before your job
  • for choosing not to have children
  • for experimenting boldly with different ways of being a leader
  • for being at the table with a voice that is not familiar to the others there
What we need to apologise for:  

Apologising is so important and so powerful keep it for when you are genuinely sorry, when it is hard to do for all the right reasons, when you need to genuinely ask for forgiveness:

  • for when our addiction to being right rides rough-shod over others’ contribution and perspective
  • from a colleague whose work you were unfairly critical of because you were tired and frustrated with the pace of change
  • for forgetting to celebrate your team’s performance before charging into the next project
  • from a loved one for not being there for them when they needed you
  • for not seeing the potential in an idea that wasn’t yours
  • from yourself for being human

How to give potency to your apology 

Start with being aware of when you apologise on autopilot and rephrase what you need to say with positive unapologetic language.  Compare:
It’s not really what I would have done if I’d had more time” vs “I’m proud of what we have done in the time we had
Sorry I’m late” vs “Thanks for waiting
This is probably a dumb idea but…” vs “In the spirit of brainstorming, how about…

As a female leader rather than think about what you are doing wrong just say to yourself, ‘From today I will apologise powerfully. Authentically. With real integrity. No autopilots. My sorries will enhance my potency as a leader and not diminish it. They will enrich my life and the life of those in it.

It is important we keep apologies for when they matter – to you and the person you are apologising to. Autopilot apologies can diminish us whereas genuine apologies can enhance our power and potency as leaders.  Being sorry means something when it is not part of our autopilot, when it is intentional and well frankly, when it is difficult to do.

The irony is that often what we think diminishes us does the opposite (e.g. admitting fault and apologising).  And what we think empowers us in fact diminishes us (e.g. excusing ourselves constantly or choosing not to apologise for wrongs we have done.)

Real leadership power is knowing ourselves well enough to understand and practice the difference.

You might be interested in my podcast episode with world renowned leadership expert Sally Helgesen on some of the habits that hold women back in their career and how to overcome them. Click here to listen.

As always thanks for reading this and sharing it. Feel free to read more on my blog page.

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