Doubly cursed a woman AND a Canadian, I have a tendency to apologize for everything. Someone walks into me while I’m standing still? “Sorry!” (for not having made myself more visible, maybe.) Someone at my doctor’s office has left me in the waiting room for 40 minutes because they actually didn’t check me in? “Sorry to be a bother …” (because when I gave you my card and appointment details I thought you would tell the doctor I was here). Someone hands a paper in late? “Sorry …” (because I have to give a late penalty.)
Once I became grad chair, the opportunities to apologize became more numerous, because not only did I have a lot more opportunity to make mistakes, and I have made plenty, I also had to enforce a lot of rules and make a lot of decisions that invariably made at least some people unhappy.
There are three kinds of apologies I have heard myself and others make, in leadership roles:
- Apologizing for mistakes is a leader thing to do: it shows responsibility and humility at once. While it would be better not to make the mistake at all, if you make it once, just own it: “I’m sorry none of this paperwork made it to your office by the deadline. I didn’t realize how much time it would take me to process them on our end, and that was my error.”
- Apologizing for making decisions is a not-leader thing to do. It undermines confidence in your leadership: “I’m sorry that you have to serve on that committee in the spring” makes it sound like not even you think it’s a good idea.
- Apologizing for someone else’s behaviour and/or the consequences of that behaviour is even worse, and plays into the mommy or nurturer stereotype many people seem to expect from women. It also makes you look like a pushover. “I’m sorry, but you failed the exam” makes it sound like the failure is your own, for example.
We should all continue to cultivate the practice of Apology Number One: a heartfelt “sorry” and commitment to not make that mistake again is a learning opportunity and a relationship-builder. Or at least a relationship-mender, in cases of serious blunders. The trick here is to make the sorry unequivocal and clear. In my example above, I avoided the “I’m sorry … but … ” formulation that says, basically, “I know I have to say ‘sorry’ but it actually wasn’t my fault.” A more egregious failure of category one apologies comes in the form of “I’m sorry … if …” as in “I’m sorry if some found my language offensive,” because that lays the ultimate responsibility for the people choosing to be offended instead of at your own feet, for saying something insensitive.
Apologies Number Two and Three are deadly, though, and we must stop with that. Luckily, I have some suggestions that keep the empathy and kindness I think we’re all aiming for when we apologize in those ways, without actually apologizing.
Make Decisions Without Expressing Regret!
If you have decided something, say so without regret or equivocation. “I’m sorry, but our meetings must take place on Friday afternoons” sets people up to complain. This is better: “Our meetings have all been scheduled for Friday afternoons this term. We are a big committee, with many obligations, and that time slot is the only one in which all of us are free to attend.” Here, I just took the sorry right out. If you want to empathize, you could add, “I know it’s not your preferred time-slot–it’s not mine, either!”
If you have decided something unpopular, the tendency to apologize to the inevitable complainants will be near overwhelming. I suggest giving structural context but no apologies. Let’s say you have to assign someone to teach at 8:30 in the morning, and they ask to change to 9:00 or 9:30 or 10:00 or anything and you say no. Don’t apologize. Briefly explain why: “The registrar’s office mandates class timeslots. Start times for graduate courses are 8:30am, 11:30am, 2:30pm and 5:30pm. So your class time cannot be shifted for that reason, and even if we arranged such a thing informally, it would conflict with the courses starting at 11:30, thus diminishing student choice, and, potentially, the enrolment in your own course.” It is an advanced manoeuvre to give the right amount of context, but not too much. Overexplaining is simply another version of apologizing and undermining your own authority.
If someone asks you to do something, like an invited talk, or a workshop or some such, and you have the feeling that you are supposed to feel honoured AND that saying no would mean that person has to go back to the drawing board to find someone else, you can still say no without regret. The word you want here is “unfortunately.” The word “unfortunately” is a magical world. It suggests bad luck, without agent or transitivity. “Unfortunately, I will not be able to accept your invitation, owing to constraints on my schedule. Thank you for thinking of me.” Not sorry. You did nothing wrong in turning down discretionary work.
Do Not Apologize for Being the Bearer of Bad News
I deliver a surprising amount of bad news: no, you can’t have that transfer credit; no, I cannot sign that course override; no, you cannot graduate without the language requirement milestone; no, your dissertation is not ready to defend; no, you did not win that scholarship; no, you did not receive admission to the program.
In some these cases, I’m just the decider of something: like transfer credits, or course overrides. These are actually category two situations.
The harder cases are when you have to hold someone to account for their own failings. It is crucial not to apologize here–that can give false hope, or inculcate a sense of grievance that will lead to the filing of a grievance. It is possible to deliver bad news with empathy, but without apology. If someone has failed an exam: don’t apologize. If someone has been caught plagiarizing: don’t apologize. If someone has failed to hold office hours for an entire term and needs to be disciplined: don’t apologize.
Here are the phrases you need: “I understand this is not the news you were hoping for,” “I understand this is unexpected,” “I am sure this is distressing to hear,” “I imagine you must be upset by this news.”
Some more phrases: “If you need some time to think about this, we can meet at another time,” or “Here is a Kleenex,” or “This might be a lot to take in, please feel welcome to ask me questions about what comes next.”
Also important: be quiet and wait for the person to say something. Sometimes an awkward but empathetic silence is better than rushing in with a bunch of words while someone’s head is reeling. The key is to be clear and direct with the bad news and the consequence if there is one, while expressing a sensitivity to the recipient’s likely distress.
We apologize sometimes from empathy, sometimes from insecurity, and sometimes from a squeamishness about our own decisions. Unless you’ve made a mistake, though, there are better ways to express kindness and understanding, more productive ways, than saying “sorry.”
I’ve been really kicking my non-apologies into high gear since I’ve had to make so many decisions and enforce so many rules in my administrative role. But the same rules apply to being asked to serve on committees, or to perform service or volunteer work, or to give a talk or a workshop.
Do you apologize more than you want to? Do you have strategies to help with that? I’d love to hear them.