• Career Center

    How to Get Ahead: Sorry Not Sorry

    By | May 9, 2017

    Not that long ago, someone I hadn’t heard from in months and barely knew texted me out of the blue to ask for a favor. I won’t get into the specifics of the favor but let’s say it involved some cats and me putting the cats somewhere other than that person’s house as if I have some cat teleportation machine just sitting around my apartment.

    Included in the spontaneous text were an urgent deadline 48 hours away (“They have to leave Tuesday OR ELSE”) and some long sob story that far exceeded the 160 character limit of a normal text message.

    Without even thinking about it, my involuntary reaction was to tap out “I’m sorry but…” Here I was being asked for a huge favor — finding a place to put two cats who are someone else’s responsibility on a moment’s notice isn’t easy, even for veteran cat ladies such as myself — and then apologizing for the fact that I couldn’t drop everything and take this on. What the hell is wrong with me?

    Many years ago, someone older and wiser than me gave me a piece of advice I’d like to pass along to you: Stop being sorry for everything.

    The issue of apologizing for things that you really don’t feel sorry for is particularly common in women (but men do it too), and I’ll spare you the pathetic hand-wringing over why that might be. Perhaps we’re afraid to be assertive. Perhaps we really do feel sorry more than men due to our squishy pink brains. Who knows, but we do know it’s a problem. In fact, there’s even a Chrome plug-in to help you eliminate phrases that “undermine” your message.

    A Fast Company article from 2014 addresses why all this being sorry is so bad for the apologee:

    Apologizing unnecessarily puts women in a subservient position and makes people lose respect for them, says executive coach and radio host Bonnie Marcus. Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Manhattan-based think tank, Center for Talent Innovation and author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Talent and Success, says using “sorry” frequently undermines our gravitas and makes them appear unfit for leadership.

    In other words, saying you’re sorry makes you appear pathetic. I’m sorry, but that seems only a tad extreme. Oops, I just did it, sorry.

    The problem is so bad there are even articles about how you should feel bad for telling women to stop saying they are sorry. That’s right, you better tell them you’re sorry for policing their communication, you sorry bastard.

    The Fast Co. article continues:

    Marcus suggests keeping a log of when you “sorry,” what the situation was, and how you felt. Sometimes, “sorry” is just a verbal tic, but some usage patterns may indicate a situation or person who makes you feel insecure, she says. Being aware of those triggers and how they influence your language can help you be more vigilant in “changing your communication so you’re coming from a position of strength and equality,” she says.

    Trusted friends can help you break the habit by quietly letting you know when you’re using “sorry” inappropriately, Cramer says. Knowing that you’re under another’s watchful eye is also going to make you more aware of your speech, she says.

    Can we be real here? If the goal is to be more confident and less wishy-washy in your communication, I’m not entirely sure asking someone to call you out for no-no words is the way to go about it. Then again, we all know women are completely incapable of even visiting the bathroom without the assistance of their friends, so it makes sense that someone would recommend they lean on friends to tell them to knock it off with the sorrys.

    There is something to be said for a little self-reflection here. If you say “sorry” 20 times a day, it’s highly unlikely you mean sorry in its dictionary form. You can be sorry if you were running late and made your kids wait 20 minutes after school to be picked up, you shouldn’t be sorry if a colleague asks you the status on a project that isn’t due for a week and you haven’t finished yet. You can be sorry for failing to deliver on a promise you made, you shouldn’t be sorry for asking the barista at Starbucks to fix the latte they screwed up.

    As for those cats I was expected to find a foster home for at the last minute? I gave the owner some resources and suggested if that doesn’t work, she should surrender them to the animal shelter and hope for the best. I never did hear back.

    Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1073881myguitarzz/Wikimedia Commons

    • Big4Veteran

      This is such a good article. One thing I learned in the business world a long time ago is that there is almost no upside to admitting a mistake or apologizing. This is contrary to our intuition because we hear people talk about “accountability” and “ownership” as essential traits in a leader or successful person. But what I eventually realized is that “accountability” and “ownership” are for other people, not yourself. These are things you can hit someone (generally a subordinate or an enemy) over the head with when they fuck up.

      I’m being completely serious here. This is why you almost never hear a president admit that he was wrong. It usually only happens after there have been numerous congressional investigations and he is on the verge of being impeached. Can you imagine Donald Trump ever admitting he was wrong about anything? It would be the end of him. He would instantly be viewed as a loser, a giant pussy. Trump KNOWS this. There is a great line by the Russian president in the movie “The Sum of All Fears”. I paraphrase: “These days it is better to be wrong than appear impotent.”

      Politics and the business world are the same. Look at the CEO of United. He did everything in his power to avoid apologizing or saying United was wrong, even when there was a fucking video of one his customers getting the shit kicked out of him running on constant loop on CNN.

      TL:DR There is very little to gain by apologizing, and everything to lose. Successful people know this. Losers don’t.

    • Big4Veteran

      I fuck up all the time at work. But I make a conscious effort to never apologize, and try to avoid taking responsibility whenever possible. To do this, I just remind myself that my boss fucks up all the time as well, and I never hear him apologize or take ownership. I just need to ask myself what there is to gain by me apologizing. How does it improve my situation? Does it make me look any better than if I just ignore the mistake and move on? The honest answer is no.

      I know when I’ve fucked up, and I try hard to avoid repeating my mistakes. But I know there’s nothing to gain by calling attention to my fuck ups by highlighting them to my superiors or others in the company.

      • N.E.R.D.

        People who never apologize are just as annoying as the ones who over apologize because in both instances they’re being fake. Just because your boss doesn’t do it doesn’t mean that’s the correct way to act.

        • Big4Veteran

          How am I “being fake” by not apologizing? That’s stupid.

          “Just because your boss doesn’t do it doesn’t mean that’s the correct way to act.”

          What is the “correct way to act”? If you look at all of the top politicians and business leaders and even religious leaders, when do they ever apologize for anything? How many years did it take the fucking Pope to apologize for the Catholic Church systematically raping young boys and covering it up?? And then when leaders do apologize, everyone says “Well, that wasn’t good enough. This isn’t over.”

          Apologizing is a no-win situation. I’m just being honest here, which is the opposite of being fake. You’re being fake with your “correct way to act” bullshit.

          • N.E.R.D.

            For real?

            You’re not perfect, therefore not apologizing for mistakes you did do means you’re not being genuine aka “being fake.”

            “What is the correct way to act” is subjective based on whatever moral code you subscribe to. I see that you’re a lock step follower because you think politicians and business leaders are the model to follow. I disagree, but we can just agree to disagree on this subjective rhetorical question with no absolute answer because we’re both adults with differing values.

            Apologizing is a no-win situation to you, perhaps. Everybody’s ego can handle different amounts of stress.

            Genuine apologies can swiftly mend and/or maintain relationships. I think that’s a big win.

            • mmmKool Ade

              He’s not saying he’s perfect or doesn’t make mistakes. He’s saying there’s no need to apologize and doesn’t feel remorseful for those mistakes. I agree with him. People screw up, big deal, fix it and move on. I’m not going to apologize for being human.

            • Big4Veteran

              This person understands what I am saying.

              I am discussing this issue in a business/professional context. Different rules apply to personal relationships. I tend to apologize A LOT more in my personal life than I do in my business interactions.

            • N.E.R.D.

              I realize the context of business/professional relationships.

              I just think it’s important to keep these relationships grounded in humanity (if they’re worth it). Not all business relationships are created equal.

            • N.E.R.D.

              Yeah. People screw up. If it warrants an apology say it and move on.

            • Big4Veteran

              This is a bunch of fortune cookie wisdom. And someone who does not understand what I am saying.

            • N.E.R.D.

              Maybe we’re talking past each other. That’s okay.

              This is what I would say if we were talking face to face. Not sure how that’s an issue to you (or how that’s fake?).

      • Basis Adjustment

        Once you admit to being “wrong” in accounting every step you take after that admission is scrutinized with white gloves. People never forget about that one time the accountant screwed up.

        • Big4Veteran

          Not just in accounting. This is true in the whole business world, and life in general.

    • sludgemonkey

      I was really sorry when I forgot to put the trojan on last night. I will start a log to document future “I’m sorry” events.

      • keepin_it_real

        I wasn’t sorry when I didn’t pull out when I was with this chick.

    • OldRetiredAccountant

      Here is what happens when you make a mistake in the accounting world:
      1. Oops that’s wrong.
      2. OMG we have an error.
      3. Its not material.
      4. We have to fix it anyway.
      5. Fix it.
      6. The auditors want to know why we made this journal entry.
      7. We were fixing an error.
      8. OMG the auditors say we had an error.
      9. It wasn’t material.
      10. The auditors want a memo documenting the error and why it wasn’t material.
      11. Give them the memo.
      12. The auditors want to know what control failed.
      13. A control didn’t fail, we just screwed up.
      14. The auditors want to know what are the implications of the control failure and is it a significant deficiency.
      15. Write another memo documenting the control deficiency and why it isn’t significant.
      16. The auditors think its significant.
      17. Oh hell, just call it significant and remediate it.
      18. We have to report it to the audit committee.
      19. The audit committee wants a memo about what happened and how we keep it from happening again.
      20. Just fire me and I will never made an error again. I promise.

      • HWSquared

        Are you sitting at the desk next to me? You’ve just summarised my last two weeks.

        • OldRetiredAccountant

          No, I really am retired. And this is partly the reason. Just got tired of dealing with it.

      • Big4Veteran

        This is off topic, but its a good summary of the issue you are raising. Well done.

    • Biff Tannen

      Never apologize for an accounting mistake. Never, ever, EVER. I made this mistake as a 25-year-old accountant while working for a snide, judgmental, vain, selfish, stupid, arrogant supervisor at my first post-B4 accounting job. She was ten years my senior and thought she was God’s gift to the Earth. In reality she was a social pariah, known for stomping around in stilettos and thinking she was a fine dish despite time having taken its toll. I tried to be humble, tried to admit my mistakes (though she was an awful teacher and an even worse manager of people), and tried to be a traditional good slave. I learned that this approach has no value whatsoever. I left that job too soon, 1.5 years in, because I despised working for her. I regret that I didn’t just double down and blame/attack her more often. I am not kidding: defiance and doubling down projects strength and humility projects uncertainty and weakness. This is merely the perverse way of the business world, as immoral as it sounds.

      • Big4Veteran

        This is all correct, unfortunately. It is the reality of the business world. I, too, learned this lesson by getting burned early in my career.

        • Biff Tannen

          If I may ask, how crispy was the burning you received?

          Mine was enough to get me thinking that walking away from a decent enough job for an utterly inferior one was a good idea (and again, no millennial victim card here – I acknowledge that it was my own mistake to leave). I went from a PE back office accounting role to an internal audit job at an F500 company. The step down in benefits and future prospects was startling and I felt like an idiot immediately. Through a former coworker I ended up back in PE with a fantastic smaller PE firm and all is well. But I got luckly. I played Russian Roulette and I won, somehow. I learned a valuable lesson in the meanwhile.

          • Big4Veteran

            In my case, it wasn’t just one incident. It was several. I’m a slow learner.

            I wasn’t burnt to a crisp, but I learned enough by watching the process play out several times to realize that (1) taking responsibility is for other people and (2) there is very little upside to apologizing for anything.

            The above lesson has been further reinforced over and over again through the years by watching scandal after scandal play out both in politics and the business world (which are really just the same thing).

          • Big4Veteran

            I did have an asshole manager once and made the decision to leave my job because it was the easy way out. This took my career off track, and the asshole manager just kept chugging along. In hindsight, I now know that I had other options, and I shouldn’t have sacrificed my own career just because of this douchebag. This was one of the big mistakes of my career and it took a long time to get myself back on track (a lot of wasted time).

            • Biff Tannen

              Amen. Identical to what I did. I learned that being strategically adversarial would have been far better. I am easily a better communicator than this person was – not bragging, because it didn’t take much. I could have politically outmaneuvered and sabotaged this manager, to my own gain. Instead I chose to walk.

            • Big4Veteran

              I’ve found that the asshole managers usually behave this way to cover up their own incompetence and/or laziness. So its not usually necessary to sabotage them. They eventually sabotage themselves.

              The key is to stay out of their way so that when the shit does hit the fan, none of it lands on you. Cover your ass. Always cover your ass.

    • AaronBalake

      Adrienne is back and no one thought to tell me?

      • Didn’t I ban you like 50 times? Sup.

        • AaronBalake

          You did, yet here I am! Missed you. I’m well, thanks for asking. Still not an auditor but still in Big 4. What’s new?

    • Big4Veteran

      The recent PWC fuck up at the Oscars is a perfect example. They actually apologized fairly quickly, but definitely not immediately. After the show, when it was 100% clear to everyone in the world that this was PWC’s fuck up, and PWC’s fuck up alone, they spent hours with their PR people trying to craft the perfect message. Their first press release, several hours after the show, didn’t take complete responsibility. The full apology didn’t occur until the next day.

      This was one of the most spectacular public fuck ups in the history of the accounting profession, by a senior partner at the firm, and there was no question who was at fault… and the firm still tried as hard as possible to find a way not to apologize or accept responsibility. The ONLY reason that PWC apologized was that it became obvious that this would be their ONLY way to retain the client.

      • I think there’s a significant difference between being sorry and simply acknowledging you fucked up. You think PwC was actually sorry? Hell no, their only regret was any potential damage to the brand and looking stupid.

        Had I been steering that ship, I would have gotten ahead of the shitstorm by pumping out memes while my team crafts a statement. I’d turn the entire thing into a joke and then tip Colin off to some juicy Big 4 gossip at some other firm I’ve been sitting on to take attention away from the fuckup. Then again, I guess that’s why I’m an ink-stained wretch writing for an accounting tabloid and not managing communications at a Big 4 firm.