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Do you say, “I’m Sorry” at work?

My 19-year-old daughter is sophomore engineering student at CU Boulder. We had a rare, (amazing for me) opportunity to go for a mountain bike ride last week. She had a short reprieve in her schedule, and I set aside other things on my calendar to take advantage of it.

On the drive home she was telling me about a class she didn’t want to take but had to as a requirement. It’s called “Professionalism.” The purpose is to prepare students for the real world. She’s learning to write cover letters, enhance her resume, interview etc. It turns out she loves it and finds it extremely valuable.

The class isn’t graded. It’s pass/fail and based on completion. Because of a misunderstanding, she missed a deadline handing in an assignment. The professor’s policy is that as long as you send an email and say “I’m sorry” she will accept late submissions.

Maddie told me that she doesn’t have an issue with taking responsibility and her lack of accountability. But she said she doesn’t want to say, “I’m sorry.” It’s not the sentiment she has a problem with. It’s those specific words. She explained, “As a female in a male dominated field, I don’t want to be in the habit of saying ‘I’m sorry.’ I want to get into the habit of saying ‘thank you’ instead.”

Until she brought it up, I hadn’t really given much thought to this. However, studies do show that women tend to apologize more often than men do. The difference stems from the perception of what warrants an apology.

So, instead of sending an email that said she was sorry for handing in the assignment late, she said “thank you for accepting this late assignment. I appreciate your flexibility and understanding that I missed due date.”

An apology requires empathy and humility. It’s a critically important characteristic to become a trusted and influential leader. But excessively apologizing can undermine our credibility and authority and project a lack of confidence. Maddie is right. We do need to be conscious of our knee jerk response with “I’m sorry.”

It’s not that my daughter doesn’t feel regret or take responsibility. She’s making a clear distinction that in the workplace, as a female in a male dominated industry, saying “I’m sorry” for a genuine mistake that doesn’t yield negative consequences can potentially perpetuate the gender bias and undermine credibility and contribution.

Since that conversation, I’ve tried to pay attention to when and how often I use the words “I’m sorry.” It’s an unconscious habit and happens more often than I’d like to admit. Like any other habit, in order to change it, we need to increase our awareness and then apply intentional effort. I’m proud to say that it’s two days into a new week and I haven’t said it yet!

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