An Expert On Why Apologizing At Work Is So Bad For Your Career

What does your voice message say when you can’t pick up a call at work?  Is it something along the lines of “I’m sorry I can’t take your call right now….”

Or what about when you’re emailing  someone about scheduling and your availability won’t allow for the time that person is suggesting.  Do you apologize?  “I”m sorry but I can’t make Tuesday work…”

Are you actually sorry about any of these things?  NO.  And you shouldn’t apologize.

I don’t see a lot of men apologizing for things at work, and yet women tend to utter “I’m sorry” with great frequency.  We’re sorry the copy machine jammed and we’re sorry we were five minutes late, and we’re sorry our computer froze.

The thing about apologizing for things you can’t help–things you’re not actually sorry for– is that it positions you in a subservient role in the dialogue, and that’s not exactly empowering.  It creates a perception that you’re timid, and can label you as what Joan Williams calls “a dutiful daughter.”

Williams directs The Center for WorkLife Law and every year they run a leadership academy for female law firm partners.  In The New Girls’ Network:  The Polite Little Girl In The Room?, Williams examined how women in the workplace tend to be polite, dependable little workhorses.  They tend to accommodate men and never say no, never push back.  While this makes someone super valuable on the junior level, it’s not necessarily a path toward partnership.  While working hard and being polite are certainly professional assets, they aren’t enough.

“You have to assert yourself, so you’re not just seen as the polite little girl in the room and seen as a leader,” said an in-house lawyer Williams interviewed.  “You have to show that you are good at strategic thinking, to ‘own some of the meat and potatoes parts of the projects.’”

Do you want to be the ‘dutiful daughter,’ or the ‘rainmaker’ at your firm?  As a “polite” workhorse in a law firm,  you could still be promoted to partner, but it would likely be that of a ‘service partner,’ or someone who does the work for the clients while another partner, the ‘rainmaker’ brings them in.

There’s nothing wrong with being the service partner, and it’s a position of value.  But if you’re looking to break out of the dutiful daughter role, it’s not always easy.  “Keep in mind, one reason  women flock to the role is that men — who are already in leadership roles in the firm — like dutiful daughters,” said Williams.

Not all women are timid, obviously.  Yet it’s still a term people are quick to use when describing a professional woman’s performance.  Women are often criticized for lacking confidence.  But as Williams points out, “their timidity stems from their sense of having more to lose–which they often do.  [But], saying that women don’t get ahead because they lack confidence is a good example of using past discrimination to justify future discrimination”

Combat timidity with assertiveness.  Examine your language.  If you’re constantly apologizing for things you can’t help–like traffic or a paper jam–or if you’re always agreeing to more work without pushing back, the perception might be that you’re more of a dutiful daughter and less of a leader.

It can be much easier to push back on “good-girl” administrative work if you are already working on important projects that you’re passionate about.

“Go to someone who is not the dad to your dutiful daughter,” Williams advised, “And say, ‘I think what you do is fascinating, and I would really like to do that kind of work.  Is there something I could help you with?’”

Seems simple enough, yes?  Of course, the answer might be NO.  If so, keep the door open and offer to touch base in the coming weeks in case any new projects arise.  If you don’t want to be perceived as timid at work, then you have to be more assertive.  It never hurts to try and with greater risks come greater rewards.

And while you’re at it, change that voice mail recording.  Because you’re not actually sorry you missed anyone’s call.

(Photo: olly/Shutterstock)




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