Saturday Morning Rounds December 19th, 2020 - Why you probably over-apologize, and what to do about it

Posted by BossB, MD on December 19, 2020
BossB, MD

Saturday Morning Rounds

A weekly round-up of career & negotiation content for women physicians

What got our attention

Just this past week we've had a couple different clients struggle with what we like to call "apologizing their way into an ask."

We were doing some negotiation role-plays to practice for their actuaupcoming negotiations, and they had a lot of trouble with saying "I'm sorry" - or something like it - before every back-and-forth exchange.

This is a super-common issue for our clients, and we wrote about it around this time last year after one of the democratic debates. While a lot has changed since then in the world, not much has changed about our stance on the topic - so if you find that this is something you struggle with, keep reading:

A couple of weeks back we were watching the December democratic debates when an interesting question was posed. The candidates were asked, "in the spirit of the season," to either give a gift or apologize for something, to their fellow candidates.

What happened next led to one of those unsurprised-but-still-disappointed looooong sigh moments.

Every single one of the men offered a gift - in most cases their book.

Both of the women on stage offered an apology for "getting worked up" or "being blunt," respectively.

Turns out, apologizing is an incredibly complex, still unsolved conundrum in the worlds of both psychology and economics. So we did a deep dive on some of the best resources to summarize what we know so far about the topic:

  • This Atlantic article is a great summary of the high-level research on which types of apologies are best in which situations, as well as the gender gap in apologizing
  • This podcast episode (and transcript) is a fascinating conversation about the economics of apologizing, game theory, and how the chief economist at Uber approached the problem of how the company should apologize for a bad ride
  • This article from the Association of Psychological Science summarizes research on the six elements of an effective apology

But none of them do justice to the single most important thing we can do when it comes to our apologies, which is to STOP GIVING SO DAMN MANY OF THEM! We'll explain why and how in our "tip of the week"

Who we're following

Any time we're reading about economics we can't help but give a shout-out to our favorite BossB economist, Dr. Emily Oster, PhD (@ProfEmilyOster). She focuses her work on what we believe to be the most systematically intractable component of the gender gap - having and raising kids. Even though she doesn't focus on the workplace implications of family life, her Twitter feed is a treasure trove of well-curated content on those topics and funny/endearing personal posts.

BBMD tip of the week

There's a central tension that has to be addressed anytime we talk about apologizing:

  • The urge to apologize, and specifically women's tendency to do so far more often, is actually a sign of higher emotional intelligence, which can be a professional superpower if wielded correctly
  • Apologizing, in the majority of cases, makes one look weaker, less trustworthy, and more guilty in the eyes of observers

So how can we throw out the "bathwater" of over-apologizing, and at the same time spare the "baby" of emotional intelligence & resonance? We're so glad you asked! Here are a few quick rules to help you:

  • No harm, no foul - Unless you've actually caused someone some type of harm, don't let the words "I'm sorry" escape your mouth. That means no more apologizing for letting your voice be heard ("I'm sorry, but") or taking up physical space, which should cut out of 50%+ of apologies right there
  • Say "thank you" instead - Sometimes we do a small amount of harm to someone that needs to be addressed; a common example is showing up late to a meeting. Next time something of that nature happens, try instead to say "thank you for <insert whatever virtue they need to get over it>." So in the event of showing up late for a meeting, you'd say "thanks for your patience." It addresses the value of their time without weakening your position or committing too much self-flagellation, and gives them no option but to get over it quickly (or not live up to the positive image of themselves that you've painted)
  • Download this gmail plugin - This awesome little addition to your online ecosystem not only draws your attention to every time you write an apology, it also highlights any kind of language that might undermine your message or diminish your voice. Seriously, download this and your professional correspondence will massively improve. Better yet, use it to draft scripts of what you might say verbally in order to strengthen your spoken messages too!
  • Apologize empathetically, sincerely, and unequivocally when it counts - Saying sorry still has an incredibly important place, it's just probably well under 10% of our current use of the term. If you use it more sparingly, it will start to mean a lot more when you do say it.

Quote we're contemplating

Food for thought on why we have this urge and how to replace the important role it plays without undermining our position:

"For many women, and a fair number of men, saying 'I'm sorry' isn't literally an apology; it's a ritual way of restoring balance to a conversation." - Deborah Tannen

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PPS - As always, please let us know your requests and suggestions by replying to this email (we read 'em all) or getting at us via Twitter. Which section above is your favorite? What do you want more or less of? Just send a tweet to @BossB_MD and put #SaturdayMorningRounds in there so we can find it.

Have a wonderful weekend, y'all!