I’m Sorry for Saying I’m Sorry

Experts worry that apologies from firms and managers are becoming too common to be effective. How leaders can make more meaningful amends. 

I’m sorry, but…

It’s become an all-too-common refrain—from colleagues, managers, corporate chiefs, and even CEOs. In the eyes of both bosses and employees, apologies have been sharply on the rise since the pandemic began and now in during these tough economic times. As we head toward the end of the year, experts say, revenue shortages will force a number of cutbacks, including bonuses and promotions, and leaders will be asking for forgiveness more and more.

Apologizing to employees, researchers say, can actually make them feel worse; doing it too many times can make a boss look weak. Experts suggest that bosses think twice before issuing the next apology. “Come with solutions, not excuses,” says Brian Bloom, Korn Ferry’s vice president of global benefits and mobility operations.

Bosses have become increasingly frustrated about being forced to take responsibility for things they can’t control. Midlevel managers, for instance, didn’t create the major delays in product shipping during the pandemic or make the decision to close offices. But they were the ones who had to placate displaced employees and angry customers. In the COVID era, managers have had to apologize for glitchy video calls, missing emails, and other trivial matters. “‘I’m sorry’ has become a verbal crutch for many leaders,” says Juan Pablo González, sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Professional Services practice.

Employees, for their part, have been increasingly frustrated about what they’re getting (apologies instead of raises) and not getting (a definite answer on return-to-office). They often feel that bosses are only going through the motions with their apologies. “People have fatigue of people letting them down,” says Victoria Baxter, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s ESG & Sustainability Solutions practice.

Apologies are important and often necessary. Taking responsibility can restore dignity to employees and bolster their confidence. It also can motivate them to apologize to others. And not apologizing brings up its own problems. It can even aggravate an existing conflict.

Experts suggest that leaders and managers be more frugal and strategic about relying on “I’m sorry” or one of its numerous equivalents. Apologizing can project warmth and thoughtfulness on the one hand, but also hint at weakness or incompetence on the other, according to a recent study from professors at the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon University. An understanding of the audience will go a long way to determining how an apology is received, the professors say. For instance, a boss who knows an individual employee well can anticipate whether an apology will project warmth or incompetence.

Experts also suggest that an acknowledgement of someone’s difficulties can be as important as the actual apology. “Instead of saying ‘I’m sorry,’ say, ‘Thank you for your patience,’” says González. “It’s a bit more positive than saying, ‘Here’s how I let you down.’”

Finally, before saying anything, bosses should have a plan for correcting the problem. Sharing it with employees, experts say, will help them demonstrate how they’ll avoid making the same mistake again.