How to stop apologizing at work

Sorry, but you should definitely stop saying sorry all the time—especially if you want to get ahead at your job.

How to stop apologizing at work

Are you suffering from "Sorry Syndrome"?

“Sorry, I can’t meet on Monday.” “Sorry, I won’t be able to send you the report by Thursday.” “Sorry, you may have already thought of this, but what if we use a PR company instead of doing it internally?” If you’ve said an iteration of these statements in the past week, you may be suffering from “Sorry Syndrome.” It's time to stop apologizing.

To identify your “Sorry Syndrome” symptoms, Nancy Halpern, a leadership consultant at the New York City–based coaching firm, KNH Associates, recommends analyzing when and why you say sorry. Do you often say sorry to soften the impact of telling someone bad news or apologizing for taking a strong stance on something?

“Figure out if there are patterns or trends and then you can take corrective action to stop the behavior instead of always apologizing for it,” she says.

Monster spoke with career experts to identify the right times to say sorry at work and strategies for only apologizing when you mean it. 

When you shouldn’t say sorry

“Although it is important to apologize and take responsibility for things that you may have inadvertently screwed up, some people commonly use the word sorry and insert it into almost every sentence,” says Vijayeta Sinh, Ph.D., a psychologist and career expert in New York City.

“Stop apologizing when something is not your fault, you feel insecure or uncomfortable and aren’t sure what else to say, or you are worried about not being liked by others,” says Sinh. She says that over-apologizing can make you seem submissive and weak, instead of confident and strong.

Here are some specific sorry no-nos:

  • I’m sorry the printer is broken.
  • I’m sorry I didn’t know we would be meeting so I didn’t prepare anything.
  • I’m sorry the constructive criticism upset you.
  • I’m sorry to take up your time, but it would be helpful to go over the presentation.

When you should say sorry

There are times when you should apologize and there’s a right and wrong way to do it. “If you truly regret having done something and feel remorse, say you're sorry,” says Jennifer Davis, founder of the New Jersey–based leadership-coaching firm, Jennifer Davis Consulting.

Some completely appropriate scenarios for saying sorry are when you lose your temper, arrive late to a meeting, or deliver sloppy work. Instead of saying sorry as a one-word statement without providing any context, Davis recommends using this formula: Apologize-Acknowledge-Explain-Action.

Here’s how the apology formula works:

  • Apologize for something specific to the person or people who were impacted.
  • Acknowledge that you understand how your actions affected them.
  • Explain where you were coming from without it sounding like an excuse.
  • Now state an action plan for how you’ll solve any problems your actions may have created, and how you’ll act differently in the future.

What to say instead of “I’m sorry”

“One great way to stop apologizing if you are not responsible is to just validate the other person’s feelings. Try saying, ‘That must be really frustrating,’ or, ‘You seem really upset right now’ to diffuse a situation,” says Colby Peters, Ph.D., a leadership consultant at Baltimore-based Colby Peters Consulting.

He adds that showing you care and allowing people to talk about how they feel can make them feel better and strengthen your relationship. Win-win!

A surprising sorry substitute is “Thank you,” says Cynthia Pong a New York City career coach. “Instead of, ‘I’m sorry I’m asking you to do this so last-minute,’ say, ‘Thank you for bearing with such a tight deadline.’ And instead of, ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t get back to you sooner,’ say, ‘Thank you for being patient; I had a lot on my plate this week,’” Pong explains.

No apologies needed

Stop apologizing for taking control of your career. If you feel like you’re saying sorry all of the time, or feel like you just can’t do anything right, it might actually be time for a new job. Need some help? Join Monster for free todayAs a member, you can upload up to five versions of your resume—each tailored to the types of jobs that interest you. Recruiters search Monster every day looking to fill top jobs with qualified candidates, just like you. Additionally, you can get job alerts sent directly to your inbox to cut down on time spent looking through ads.