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I'm Sorry (Again)! Dealing with Coworkers who Apologize Too Much

A coworker comes up to you and apologizes for a mistake she made...last week. It's the fifth time she's apologized for it, too. Sorry to bring this up, but how should you handle the coworker who won't stop apologizing for something?

We've all worked with this coworker. Elton John said that sorry seems to be the hardest word, but not for this coworker! These are the colleagues in meetings who will preface what they're about to say with phrases such as "This might sound like a stupid idea, but..." or "This is probably a bad idea, but..." or "I don't think this would work, but..."


These are the colleagues who will apologize for not being totally prepared, but will generally proceed to do a good job -- making us wonder if they were yanking our chains by playing the "low expectations" game of undersell and over-deliver. I told them I couldn't do it, and then BAM I delivered!

These are the colleagues who will keep saying "sorry" when sorry simply isn't necessary. When they apologize for it again 10 minutes later, everyone else has moved on. Or is trying to, anyway.


You feel for this coworker. Yet the overriding need to apologize for -- well, everything all the time! -- is beginning to grate. Forgive me for saying it, but you wish this coworker would stop apologizing throughout the work day because it is not necessary.

Again, I'm So Sorry!
The advice to employees who continually apologize throughout the work day is this: please stop. You're hurting your own credibility with your work team and customers alike when you preface your comments with negativity directed back at yourself. Those listening might instantly assign low value to what you're about to say before it's even been said. Don't do this to yourself.

It doesn't help that too many people will utter "sorry" instead of "excuse me" regarding basic, everyday trespasses. The latter phrase -- I'm sorry to say it! -- would make the speaker sound much more confident, and quietly powerful. "Sorry" has become a verbal tic in the elevator, in the coffee line, at the copier, and everywhere else. Sorry, I need a napkin. What? No. Let's make a conscious effort to say "excuse me" instead. It will take work now that "sorry" has become a Category 5 ear worm.

Sorry, It Has To Be Said
But how can you broach this issue with the constantly apologizing colleague? Here are five quick tips:

1. Ask why they're apologizing. A gentle, well-placed, upbeat-in-tone "Why are you saying sorry for that?" could help this colleague begin to wonder why they're apologizing when they don't need to.

2. Point it out on the down low. If you have gotten to know this coworker and want to help him or her (but most likely, her) lose this bad habit, look for an opportunity one-on-one to say: "I notice you apologize a lot in meetings for what you're about to say, but you don't need to do that. You have good ideas. Don't undersell them." With any luck, they won't apologize for apologizing in meetings.

3. Compliment them for a job well done. Sometimes saying "sorry" too much can be a confidence issue, or a sign of an overbearing inner critic. The employee doesn't feel confident in their work abilities, their role, and so on. When they do a good job, tell them they did well. These small moments could help build their confidence level. "I just want to let you know that you did a great job. Thanks." The small moments at work can make a big impact. Just make sure you really mean it when you say it.

4. Tell them to let it go. When this coworker circles back to apologize for something that happened an hour ago, simply say: "There's no need to apologize again. Everything's good. By the way, did you hear what happened after the meeting this morning?" Getting the apologetic coworker re-focused on the work at hand is the way to go.

5. Put this coworker into another perspective. You're tired of hearing this coworker say "I'm sorry" on the fives. On the other hand, so few people are willing to take ownership of their trespasses that hearing anyone apologize goes against the grain of modern workplace behavior. Sorry, not sorry. Hey, at least this coworker can apologize and take ownership of what he or she perceives as their mistake -- even if the apology was for dropping a plastic spork on the floor? Stick a fork in your bad reaction, it's done.

I'm so sorry this post ended up being longer than I had originally planned. This was probably a stupid idea, and I apologize (again) for bringing it up. This might sound weird, but I hope you'll forgive me.


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