In people management, difficult conversations happen all the time. The best HR leaders handle those conversations seamlessly. They soothe everyone involved, make their voice heard, earn respect and craft a positive outcome.
But one big thing can undermine you, and hamper your progression into the C-suite while you’re at it. And it’s almost definitely something you do.
Here’s the story. And what you should do instead.
What might be more surprising is the survey’s other finding.
Once you look further up the ranks the narrative turns on its head, because 70% of mid-to-senior HR professionals are men.
Of course, that’s only one survey and we should take these things with a pinch of salt. But the trend is there.
Even in a profession that often battles against a women-only perception.
A profession that attracts many thousands more women than men.
A profession where many more women than men study relevant undergraduate degrees and take relevant postgraduate HCM qualifications,
Even in that profession, men are still overrepresented in senior roles.
That’s a real problem. And it’s not one with one simple cause or solution, so we’re not going to pretend to have easy answers.
But there’s one thing that could play a part in
Women are more likely to believe they’ve done something to apologize for, while men have a “higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behavior”.
Apologizing, in other words, is linked to greater empathy. That ability to understand what might be offensive from someone else’s perspective.
Given that empathy is a major requirement for a successful HR career, it’s little wonder that HR folks are often frequent apologizers.
Which is an all-round Good Thing, right? How can empathy be bad?
Over-apologizing can be counterproductive, on several levels.
If you’re too quick to apologize when an apology isn’t necessary, you risk implying you lack the confidence and competence to be a successful senior leader.
You create a glass ceiling for yourself.
Especially if your current senior leadership team is largely male, because they’re less likely to be over-apologizers themselves (and so more likely to see your apologizing in a negative light.)
Coming back to our progression problem for senior women in HR, it’s not a huge leap to suggest over-apologizing plays a part.
First things first…
Because let’s be clear – we’re not saying you should never apologize. Sometimes a sincere apology is absolutely necessary to move past something, get colleagues on-side and show you’re humble enough to accept your mistakes.
A genuine apology is often crucial to
But you don’t need to apologize for...
Culling the apologies doesn’t mean becoming an uncaring twit. You can care that someone was inconvenienced without apologizing.
How? By saying ‘thank you’ instead.
So “I’m sorry, we need to reschedule this meeting again” becomes “We need to reschedule this meeting again. I know that’s frustrating - thank you for your understanding”.
Or “I’m sorry, this project has fallen behind” becomes “This project has fallen behind. You’ll have the next stage on your desk mid-week – thank you for your patience.”
Adding empathy statements – “I know that’s frustrating”; “this must be really hard for you to hear” –
So it makes the recipient feel heard and understood. Generally the same outcome you were going for with the apology but without any of the negatives.
An apology isn’t meaningful unless it’s linked to an action.
Like… “I’m sorry. This delay is my fault because I was looking at an old version of the project timetable. I’ve bookmarked the newest version and I’ll have that report with you by tomorrow afternoon”.
See how that’s better than, “I’m so sorry, I know I should’ve had the report with you yesterday”?
The first accepts responsibility but quickly transitions to offering a solution. While the latter puts all the emphasis on seeking forgiveness. (Which isn’t taking responsibility. It’s putting the responsibility onto the other person, to forgive you).
Link your apologies to an actionable next step that shows how and when you’re fixing the mistake. It’s your commitment to do better next time.
And sticking to this rule will help you spot those unnecessary, “I’m sorry, but have you considered…” type apologies. (Those have no actionable next step because they shouldn’t be apologies in the first place).
Some triggers can provoke over-apologizing almost every time.
Like… difficult conversations with employees. Fighting for your voice to be heard amongst the leadership team.
Make a list of your own triggers. Then jot down some phrases you can call on instead of apologizing.
Then practice, practice, practice.
So, say you’ve got to tell your new hire that her skirt’s too short for work (which shouldn’t happen if you’ve got
Instead of “I’m sorry to do this…” try “This isn’t an easy thing to hear, but…”
Or say you’re trying to
Instead of, “I’m sorry, but I don’t agree” try “There’s another angle here”.
Or say you’re getting some difficult feedback thanks to
Instead of “I’m sorry, you’re right, we need to make changes” try “This hasn’t gone as we planned. I’ve implemented a new onboarding program to turn next quarter around. Do you have any other feedback that could help?”
Most HR folks have empathy by the bucketload. Empathy is a must-have for a successful career managing people. (Amongst plenty of other things.)
But if that empathy manifests as constant apologizing, it can become counterproductive to your progression. Especially when women tend to over-apologize more than men anyway – and HR is already battling a glass ceiling.
Curbing your over-apologist tendencies mightn’t seem like a huge deal. It’s not the sole answer and it certainly won’t shatter that ceiling overnight.
But it’s a step in the right direction. And something you can take control over right now, to help clear your path into the C-Suite.
Talmundo is an employee onboarding platform that helps HR leaders build the HR you’ve imagined.