How and when to say “I’m sorry” at work

Resilient professionals

know when to say “I’m sorry” 

and when it’s time to stop

The way you routinely speak at work may say more about you than you realize.  Some words are particularly powerful and should be handled with care.

One of those big impact words is “sorry.” It’s typically defined to include emotions like regret, sadness and penitence, but in practice it can have many shades of meaning. And when we say the phrase “I’m sorry” in a work environment, we might be expressing anything from remorse, to subservience or uncertainty, to defiance.

sorry noteThe research about saying “sorry” seems to be evolving, and the word’s nuances vary with organizational cultures. But here’s my take on how, when and whether to say, “I’m sorry”:

  • Do say you’re sorry when you’ve done something wrong. When you screw up on the job, the best plan is generally to confess immediately, apologize sincerely, and turn quickly to rectifying the situation or making sure that it won’t happen again. For the victim, when you apologize you make a bit of moral restitution. You give them some power over you, and as they see your discomfort they can decide whether to accept your apology or withhold forgiveness. But your apology gives you something back, as well. When you ‘fess up, it can be like a reset button, and you have a chance to move on and restore the normal order.
  • Be sincere when you apologize. Not all apologies improve matters. Your “sorry” is more likely to be favorably received when you mean it. You can transmit the intensity of your regret by describing how you actually feel (“I couldn’t sleep last night”) and proposing a way to make up for your wrongdoing.
  • Do say “sorry” even if you weren’t to blame. Sometimes we say, “I’m sorry,” not to express remorse, but to show our compassion. This might happen when things go wrong in some way far beyond your control, like horrible weather that inconveniences your guests. Or you might say, “I’m so sorry,” to acknowledge a personal loss, like a death in the family. There’s some psychological research suggesting that this kind of “superfluous” apology can build a sense of trust and connection between you and the listener, and make everybody feel better.
  • Don’t say it when you don’t mean it. Saying “I’m sorry” when you’re feeling the opposite can feel like an insult to the recipient. “Sorry” is a complex word, and it can be inflammatory when your non-verbal message is the opposite of regret. Don’t make the situation worse by accompanying the phrase “I’m sorry” with a grimace or an eye roll. And avoid beginning your sentence with “I’m sorry, but…” When you don’t feel at fault, avoid making a fake apology. Instead, focus on improving the situation, and say something positive like, “let’s see what we can do to fix this.”
  • Don’t say “sorry” to soften an insult. If you say, “Sorry, but this draft is no good,” don’t think your wording will make the message any easier to accept. If you really do feel bad about having to deliver bad news, make it clear what you regret, and then be direct about delivering the message. You might say, “I’m truly sorry if this will ruin your weekend. But I have to ask for a number of changes in your draft.”
  • Don’t say “sorry” when there’s nothing to apologize for.   Sometimes people repeatedly say “I’m sorry” as a way to show deference or humility. A clever 2014 ad from Pantene asks the question, “Why are women always apologizing?” That video shows a series of situations where women say “sorry” for things that don’t call for an apology, like asking a question or making a reasonable request. It makes the point that “sorry” doesn’t mean the same thing as, “excuse me,” and illustrates how needless apologies can make you sound uncertain or insecure.

Do you think that you say “I’m sorry” too often? Or, perhaps, not enough? If you want to get a clear picture of your speech habit, keep a log for a week or two. Write down every instance when you apologize, noting precisely what it is that you regret.

Photo credit: Fotolia
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Why & how to start your day with a smile

Smiling can make your day

and boost your career

Some scientists say that humans are the only animals who smile. I don’t believe that.

Daisy in the garden

Daisy in the garden

Daisy, our yellow lab, has a killer smile. As she establishes eye contact, her mouth drops open and the corners turn up, wider and wider. When she gives my husband, Andy, her love gaze, his big grin mimics hers. The two of them may briefly freeze like that, with locked eyes and happy faces. At other times, Daisy’s smile overtakes her body and she gyrates with pleasure, from her wagging tail and wriggling butt to her vibrating shoulders.

I’ve noticed that simply by describing a recent Daisy smile I can trigger an intense answering smile on Andy’s face. Because he frequently travels, on occasion I’ll describe her smile as we chat on the phone. In my mind’s eye I see his face light up, at just the thought of Daisy’s happy look.

While there’s disagreement about the validity of canine smiles, scientists agree that the human smile is contagious. Dale Carnegie talked about it in his popular 1936 book, How to Win Friends & Influence People. In the book’s section on “Six Ways to Make People Like You,” Principle 2 was just one word: “Smile.”

Carnegie quoted this Chinese proverb: “a man without a smiling face must not open a shop.” Your smile, he said, “is a messenger of your goodwill,” and a simple way to make a good impression. Carnegie advised us to smile even when we don’t feel like it, because action and feeling go together. If we smile we’ll feel happier, and those around us may as well.

In the roughly 80 years since Carnegie drafted Principle 2, psychologists and other scientists have undertaken countless studies of the human smile. In her fascinating book, “Why Smile?” social psychologist Marianne LaFrance examined research getting at “what makes smiles so powerful, and powerfully consequential.”

It seem that the phenomenon is more complicated than Carnegie realized. LaFrance explains that your smile and the message it carries are shaped in part by your culture. For example, in the American South people smile often, and to stone-faced Northeasterners their friendly demeanors may come across as fake. Also, immediate circumstances can shift the way your expression is interpreted. Normally your smile is positive for the person who receives it. But if you flash a big grin when you win the game, it might get under your rival’s skin.

Despite the complexities, however, the research affirms that “smile!” is often excellent career advice. Here are some why’s and how’s of smiling:

  • It feels good. Smiling can increase the release of endorphins and other mood-enhancing hormones. It can calm your heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress, contribute to a heightened sense of well-being, and support good health.
  • It looks good. When you smile, there’s a better chance other people will perceive you as attractive, likable and memorable. They are also more likely to find you approachable and see you as trustworthy. And they’ll think you look younger.
  • It’s contagious. We are hardwired to mirror each other’s happy looks. When you smile at colleagues or clients, they may automatically return your expression. More importantly, as you exchange smiles with another person, the two of you connect in a more fundamental way. They actually experience the positivity underlying your smile, and as a result could be more satisfied with your conversation.
  • It spreads. If your smile makes a team member feel good, his mood will improve and he’ll be more likely to smile at the next face he sees. The wave of good feeling can become viral, moving from one person to another.
  • Even fakes work. The most powerful smiles are genuine, emanating from deep within you. But social smiles, that require some effort on your part, are effective as well. And they can start a virtuous cycle. If you struggle to smile, but then I smile back, you will respond to my facial expression. Soon your tentative smile can become heartfelt.
  • You can get better at it. The more you practice a positive expression, the more likely it is that you’ll experience spontaneous smiles. The trick is to start your smile from the inside, by thinking about something that makes you feel good. Simple techniques include summoning up the image of a loved one, or remembering a particularly happy event.

If you smile more regularly, the new habit can retrain your brain to see the world in more optimistic ways. The new dose of positivity might boost your creativity and help you to be more productive. An excellent way to get started is to begin each morning with a smile. When you first wake up, summon up a happy thought and practice your best grin. Then your smiles will come more easily for the rest of the day.

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Posted in career resilience, finding new energy, personal branding, positivity, self improvement Tagged with: , ,

Get that Jimmy Fallon touch!

Good manners provide a path

To popularity and success

I was delighted to hear a radio commentator report that The National League of Junior Cotillions selected Jimmy Fallon to top its “Best-Mannered List for 2014.”

According to the League’s website, Fallon was selected as number one “for maintaining the dignity and respect of others through his comedic disposition as host of ‘The Tonight Show.'”

I couldn’t agree more. Part of what makes Fallon so charming is that he invariably seems delighted to be with his guests and determined to help them look good. Much of our enjoyment comes from his intense interest in their success and his whole body laughter at their jokes.

Even if you don’t think he’s funny, how can you help liking Jimmy Fallon? Perhaps social graces like his are so appealing because they are a low-key application of the Golden Rule. The way he interacts with others seems to say: I’ll be nice to you and I have confidence that you’ll be nice to me.

Thank You Text on Small Piece Wood Hold by HandThe ideals of polite behavior may not be discussed in your workplace. But you’ll know what they mean if someone describes a colleague as “a real gentleman,” or “a true lady.” We enjoy being with polite people because they tend to notice us and are so aware of our needs.

For a personal brand that sets you apart from the crowd, learn from Fallon. Develop a reputation for treating everyone with respect. Of course what counts most are the big things, like pitching in to support your colleagues in a crisis. But you can enhance your brand by consistently exhibiting good manners in even small ways: Read more ›

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Posted in business etiquette, Career management, personal branding, self improvement

8 vital tips for starting a new job

 To launch a new job

you need a good plan

Are you looking forward to your first day in a different job? Or maybe you’re preparing to welcome a new colleague?

My worst first day at work was 30 years ago, but I still remember it vividly. I was a few years out of law school and shifting to a new firm in the nation’s capital. The title on my business card read “partner,” instead of “associate,” in deference to the clients I was able to bring along with me.

Well in advance, I caught up with all my own client activities. On the day, I arrived in a new suit, with an empty briefcase, eager to make a good impression in the Washington office of this Virginia firm. But the attorneys who had interviewed me all were out of the office that day, and nobody else seemed pleased to meet me.

Welcome Aboard! (c)thinglass fotolia.comI found my way to the most senior Washington partner and introduced myself. Before quickly dismissing me he said, “At the interviews they all thought you were so great, but frankly I don’t see it. You’re going to have to prove yourself before anybody here gives you work.”

The first friendly word was from the kind firm administrator, who took me to lunch and warned me about a few things. She told me that there had been controversy over my title. And she hinted that, in this male-dominated firm, both attorneys and support staff would need some time to get used to the idea of working with a woman lawyer.

The cool welcome was a challenge, but the most uncomfortable part of the day was that I had absolutely nothing to do. This was back before there was a web to surf, and I struggled to look busy. Instead of hustling over the weekend to finish my client work, I should have prepared a long list of things to do.

That night, I called my father, holding back tears. Thinking to cheer me up, he described his experience with new jobs: “The first day is always the worst day. The first week is always the worst week. The first month is the worst month. And the first year is the worst year.”

I don’t buy into the pessimism embedded in Dad’s view of new jobs. But in that case he was prophetic. In successive days, weeks, months and years my life in the firm continued to improve, and I soon felt fully accepted. But things got better partly because I learned a critical lesson. I went to work on my second day with a plan of how I would keep busy, and I never again assumed that the firm leaders would carry the responsibility for my success.

These days I find it hard to imagine even a law firm making so little effort on employee orientation. Often, in a process human resource experts call “onboarding,” organizations develop elaborate plans to assure that a new hire can quickly get to know key insiders and stakeholders, learn about performance expectations, and become familiar with the culture. Leaders may work hard to help recruits get a feel for the environment and develop realistic expectations about their roles.

But even when you’re supported by onboarding pros, at the start of a new job it makes sense to have your own plan. And whether you are joining a new company or changing slots in the same outfit, you can ease your entry into a new position by focusing on basic principles of workplace success:

  1. Learn what your boss wants. Perhaps at the start your boss will be vague about what she needs from you. Of course, you should ask about your expected deliverables and the best way to report on your progress. But don’t count on clear, complete answers. Do some detective work as well. Notice how your boss interacts with her other direct reports, what she typically wants to know, and how she sends information up the line. Get a sense of what she must do in order to be successful, and look for ways to help. Study the organization’s mission and consider how your contribution — and hers — fit within the big picture.
  2. Get to know people. When managers and professionals run into trouble with new positions or projects it’s generally not because they don’t have the technical skills. They are more likely to fail because they misunderstand the culture or don’t establish working relationships with the right people. During your first months be methodical as you reach out to teammates, customers and anybody else with information to share.
  3. Listen and learn. When you meet individuals and attend meetings, ask questions and actively listen to each new person. Resist the urge to talk about yourself and your successes in the old job. Keep an open mind, avoid offering criticism before you understand the history, and be cautious about choosing sides among warring factions.
  4. Set short-term goals. As you start to feel that your feet are on the ground, create realistic objectives for your first few months, then for the first year. Reconfirm your understanding of your boss’s expectations, focus on areas that seem to be high priority, and identify some relatively easy near-term achievements. Don’t try to do everything at once, but identify specific preliminary steps — like introductory meetings — to move you in the right direction.
  5. Do what you say you will. One of the worst ways to start out is to create a trail of broken promises. Deliver on every commitment you make, no matter how small. For example, if you offer to make a phone call or send along information, do so immediately.
  6. Be on time. A simple way to demonstrate respect and enthusiasm is to meet all deadlines and show up on time for every meeting and appointment. This can be more challenging than usual if you’re following a different schedule and in an unfamiliar environment. But it’s worth the extra effort.
  7. Adjust your attitude. It’s not unusual to experience a letdown soon after you start your job. Once you are beyond the excitement of the move, you may realize that not everything is meeting your expectations. If you get the feeling that the honeymoon is over, it will be time to make an important choice. You can give in to your disappointment and become preoccupied with how they’ve let you down. Or you can choose to focus on the positive aspects of your situation and commit yourself to doing what it takes to reach your goals.
  8. Manage stress. Recognize that the process of adjusting to your new assignment will involve moments of uncertainty, which can translate into a high level of stress. Have a plan for managing anxiety, and be sure to include a fitness program. You may feel like you have no time to work out, but that’s shortsighted. The time you spend on keeping your cool and boosting your energy is an investment in success.

It’s more common than it used to be to have an onboarding program and first year roadmap. But even if that’s the case, keep your personal objectives in mind as well. Ask yourself: what do I need to do to get off to a great start? And what are the next steps?

image credit: © thinglass – Fotolia.com

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Posted in Career management, career resilience, career success, First day at work

When to stop worrying about prestige

Your best work adventures

may begin when you

stop worrying about status

Last week I wondered about “Lucy,” an acquaintance who had a chance to move to a different kind of job. She thought the shift would put her on a career track with more interesting opportunities than her current role. But she seemed likely to decline because she would lose her “VP” title.

I felt sorry for Lucy. She had a chance to try something that looked exciting. But she was tortured by the thought that her colleagues would think her work life had hit a snag.

Then I read a compassionate passage in Michael Korda’s entertaining book, “Horse People.” Writing about the herd behavior of horses, Korda said, “However peaceful horses may look grazing in their fields or dozing solemnly on their feet in their stall, they are always busy, in the sense that their mind is constantly aware of their status, and brooding over anything that might seem likely to change or challenge it. In short, it ain’t easy being a horse…”

That’s just like Lucy, I thought. Just like a lot of people. As social animals, humans may become preoccupied by their status, fretting over anything that challenges it. They might even pass up a wise move because others could regard it as a step down. In short, it ain’t easy being human.

Unlike herd animals, however, we don’t have to always give in to the pressure from the crowd.

 Gold vip iconOf course it’s normal to want respect from our colleagues. In his classic theory of human motivation, psychologist Abraham Maslow identified the need for esteem as a basic driver of human behavior. And leaders understand how important it can be for team members to feel accepted and valued by the group.

At work, the desire to look like a winner can keep us hustling when we secretly want to just throw in the towel. And praise and appreciation from our peers can make it all feel worth it, once a big push is finished.

The desire to move up and look good may bring energy to your career. But sometimes the wish for status or accolades can waste your time or lead you to the wrong choices. Read more ›

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How to love your job again

Feeling workplace blues?

Try 7 tips from Kerry Hannon

For making work fun again

My pal and occasional colleague Kerry Hannon has written two books and countless articles about following your heart to find the work you love. In the last few years Hannon has traveled across the country, interviewing folks who have reinvented their work lives and speaking frequently about how to navigate career transitions.

Hannon says that many people love the dream of starting over with a different kind of career. But the truth is that often a big shift may not be practical. In her latest book, Hannon has changed gears to focus on how you can make your current job more satisfying.

Love Your Job – The New Rules for Career Happiness” is Hannon’s guide for people looking to find or reignite purpose and joy in their work. She says, “If you want to be happier, you have to do something, to take action.” That doesn’t always mean a big swerve from the past. “It does, however, often call on the courage to make necessary but sometimes uncomfortable and even painful changes.” Read more ›

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6 ways to get more from meetings

Stuck in endless meetings?

Make better use of that time.

How much time do you devote to meetings? Your first answer might be: “Too much!” But seriously, do you have any idea what percentage of your work life is spent meeting with people? Try calculating it. And if meetings take just 20 percent of your time, and you work 40 hours a week, 50 weeks a year, that’s a whopping 400 hours annually.

I often talk with coaching clients about how to cut down the number of hours they spend sitting at a conference table. You can reduce meeting time by:

  • Agreeing with your colleagues to maintain shorter default times. For example, if your team always gathers on Monday mornings for an hour, commit to a new time limit of 45 minutes.
  • Say “no.” Sometimes your presence isn’t all that important, and you can be excused simply by explaining that you have another commitment.
  • Run better discussions.       Particularly if you’re the leader, you can recapture wasted time by establishing good group habits, like always having an agenda, and insisting on punctuality.

Business meeting, brainstorming in flat style.But no matter how adept you are at managing your own meetings, and avoiding some others, you probably still spend a big chunk of your work time convening with colleagues.

You may sometimes feel like my client “Sharon,” who was frustrated because she felt stuck. Sharon wanted the chance to lead a team. But Jenny, her mentor, warned that some senior colleagues felt Sharon wasn’t ready to be a manager.

Sharon complained, “If I didn’t have to waste so much time sitting in their useless meetings I could really show them what I can do.”

Jenny countered, “You can’t get out of those meetings, so why not make better use of them? Read more ›

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Posted in professional growth, workplace issues Tagged with: ,

Tips for talks that keep them engaged

 Have a speech coming up?

Want to sharpen your style?

Finding more opportunities to make presentations can bring new energy to your career. Public speaking allows you to stand out, show what you know, and connect with a wider group of people. The more talks you give, the more you build your confidence and polish your style. And the prospect of presenting helps you identify what’s important and work harder to know your stuff.

I often encourage clients to raise their profiles by finding speaking venues. This might mean offering remarks at a company meeting or sitting on a convention panel. Or it could involve inventing an event that gives you the chance you need.

If one of your goals is to do more speaking, take note of how successful delivery styles have evolved over the years.

LibbyheadshotMy favorite expert on public speaking and workplace communications is Libby Vick, who once worked on Capitol Hill and is now a member of the faculty at Northern Virginia Community College. When I asked her about recent trends, Libby (who also is my sister) said, “Speeches are shorter and the audience of today is much more visually oriented. And, for better or worse, the younger the audience the more they expect an element of ‘entertainment.’”

A format Libby now uses in her classroom is based on the increasingly popular Ignite talk videos, where the motto is “enlighten us, but make it quick.” Ignite presenters talk for exactly five minutes, and during that time the audience sees 20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds. Libby said, “The idea of having visuals – without words – throughout the speech is a new concept, and it seems to work.”

“Another interesting aspect of Ignite is the premise that storytelling is the key to a successful presentation. And this can be applied to any subject,” Libby said. “For example, business audiences are often bored by PowerPoint charts and graphs, even in pretty colors.”

“So let’s say the ‘story’ you want to tell is that a once thriving industry is now suffering layoffs. Instead of a graph, you can have a slide that’s a photograph showing a plant at full production, followed by a slide that shows the same plant half empty. The story is told and the point is still made, but in a way that holds the audience’s interest,” Libby said.

If you want a fresher approach for your next talk, Libby’s advice is: Read more ›

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6 times listening may be the best strategy

Have a problem at work?

Listening may be a solution.

Regardless of how you define your key workplace objectives, I’m willing to bet that better listening skills could help you achieve at least one of them.

By “listening” I mean you not only keep your mouth shut long enough for the other person to talk, but you also shut down the voice in your head when it tries to tell you what to say next. You concentrate on the speaker, and you hear what they say even if it means you have to fight an urge to judge or be defensive.

Humans have a deep and often unmet need to be heard and understood. Neuroscience suggests that people go through life aching to have their concerns acknowledged and their presence felt. When we truly listen we meet that need and connect with the speaker in a special way, even though it might not seem like that at the time.

 listening  @Voyagerix - FotoliaAnd listening is such a fundamental part of human interaction that at some level we can usually tell if someone is actually hearing us, or just pretending. Research on “mindful listening” shows that people, and even animals, can sense whether we’re engaged in the moment or just waiting for our turn to talk. And when we deeply listen without feeling defensive or judgmental, we’re more likely to come across as genuine, charismatic and attractive.

Becoming a stronger listener can be like building your physical strength. You build your listening “muscle” by noticing your reactions to a speaker and then putting them aside. For example, let’s imagine your friend says, “you let me down.” You instantly think “that’s not true!” But instead of interrupting, you put that defensive thought aside and hear what else your friend has to say. Read more ›

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Posted in Career management, listening

8 times to stop worrying about looking like a suck up

Fear looking like an apple polisher?

It’s probably time to get over it.

One of the greatest TV characters ever was Eddie Haskell, Wally Cleaver’s oily conniving friend, still to be seen on reruns of “Leave It To Beaver.” Eddie was an archetype who no decent person wants to resemble — a two-faced sycophant, always scheming and currying favor to promote his plans

The fear of looking like a brown noser is so powerful among professionals that sometimes they shy away from obvious opportunities to make a friend or pursue a goal. Among my clients, the people who worry the most about resembling Eddie Haskell are often the straight shooters who look the least like him.

A good example is “Trish,” a quiet but talented financial wizard who wanted to eventually move to her dream job in another division of the company. Trish said she’d probably need support from Al, a senior colleague who knew the leaders there. She described Al as smart and accomplished, but self-absorbed and eager to be the center of attention.

I suggested Trish find ways to build her relationship with Al, and speculated that he might respond well to a bit of flattery. She said, “Yep – he probably would. But I couldn’t do it. I just don’t like to suck up.”

Even though it could mean a lot for her future, Trish didn’t want to cultivate a friendship with Al because he seemed arrogant and might expect her to kowtow. I said she needn’t grovel, and asked her to simply make a list of Al’s strengths and areas of expertise. Next, I suggested she spot opportunities where Al’s advice might actually be helpful.

Trish identified Al’s types of special knowledge and found projects where she could use his insights. Then she began to ask him for occasional guidance. To her surprise, Al responded warmly, and eventually became her mentor. Ultimately he guided her into the transfer she’d been dreaming about.

Trish’s reluctance to appear unctuous almost prevented her from getting to know the man who became her champion. She is not alone. Modest but otherwise self-aware people sometimes have a disproportionate fear of looking like a bootlicker.

Hand with appleAre you one of those who is reluctant to offer a heartfelt tribute for fear it will be taken as apple-polishing? Read more ›

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Posted in mentoring, networking, professional advancement Tagged with: ,

Beverly E. Jones

Watch for the book!

Think Like an Entrepreneur,
Act Like a CEO

50 Indispensable Tips to Help
Your Stay Afloat, Bounce Back, and Get Ahead at Work

Coming in late 2015
from Career Press

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Links to occasional colleagues

ECCA - Website
ThreeJoy - Website
Kerry Hannon - Website
Ohio University's Voinovich School - Website
Senior Entrepreneurship Works - Website
Congressional Management Foundation - Website
WOUB - Website
ShadowComm LLC - Website

Books with Bev’s Tips

Bev’s tips on career change are featured in the books and other writing of leading journalist Kerry Hannon. If you’re thinking about a career transition, try:

Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness


What’s Next? Find Your Passion and Your Dream Job in You Forties, Fifties and Beyond


“Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy and Pays the Bills”


Bev at Ohio University,
where she is a visiting
executive with the
Voinovich School of
Leadership & Public Affairs



Bev's garden at Buckeye Farm