Thursday, 22 January 2015

Why sorry needs to be the hardest word: Stop apologising and boost your career

How are the New Year's resolutions going?  Sticking to the dry January? Perfecting your plank? Kale smoothies on the daily commute? Good for you.  We all focus on self improvement at this time of year but perhaps the best thing you can do for yourself this January is to stop apologizing.

Research shows that women often speak less than men in a business context.  There appears to be some clear evidence that even if women aren’t experiencing direct prejudice - 'manterrupting' as Jessica Bennett calls it- they will self-edit to create the same submissive effect.
Kanye West 'manterrupts' Taylor Swift as she tries to accept an award - Getty
Typical language I see all the time might include the apologetic introduction “ I realize that you’ve probably already decided this is a bad idea, and the research will show we can’t do it but I think we should perhaps try creating a new xxx” . 

And of course the Brits apologise compulsively.  My American friends are kept amused by those viral “what the British say and what they really mean’ memes that do the rounds on Facebook every few months.  As in “not to worry, it's my fault” meaning “it’s completely your fault and you had better work this out and apologise immediately if you ever want to speak to me again”.  Italian friends are mystified by us, asking me why the British never say what they mean.  A colleague of mine who hails from Eastern Europe finds it hysterical that we apologize to furniture and doors as we bump into them.  He asks me why the British say sorry so often. Are we naturally programmed to lack assertion? you are a British woman trying to make your way forward in the business world - bad luck – double trouble.  What hope do you have of ever making headway in a world that regards crisp, assertive and confident communication as a necessary attribute for leadership?

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's recent New York Times article on a related topic argues that women self-edit because they’re afraid that if they speak confidently they will be seen as aggressive.  I get the facts but it annoys me -  I think it’s defeatist and patronizing.  In my mind aggression is only used when we can’t make convincing arguments.
Marshall your arguments   copyright
Rather we need to be less afraid of criticism and equip ourselves better to convince others of our ideas and arguments.  Using more evidence and facts to support our points of view and less assertion will help. 

As well as apologising in advance of making a point, in my experience many women will then use emotional rationale to persuade rather than facts.  “We need to think about what the team needs”  “it’s the right thing to do” and so on.  There is nothing wrong with doing the right thing or looking after your team.  Far from it.  But we need to practice the other half of the argument and get used to making that first.  Linking business outcomes with team benefits – meshing together the rational and the emotional.  Marshalling proof points and evidence ahead of important discussions and meetings so that we can structure stronger more persuasive arguments for action. Getting more practiced at answering structured questions of others.  'How will this course of action you're suggesting help us to achieve our goals? What will happen if we don’t do this? How will we measure success? What are the risks of this course of action and what are the plans to mitigate those risks?' Staying focused on the outcome not the process is a key differentiator of strong leaders of all genders and nationalities.

I know from experience that there’s no reason why women can’t master this approach with a little thought, planning and practice.  And as they do, they will find they are listened to as much or more than their male colleagues.  The best made arguments  should – and can – win the day.

I’m not sure what we do about the British love of saying sorry.  I think it's too deeply ingrained in our DNA to change.  Perhaps instead we should celebrate it as selflessness and good manners and putting others first.  Just not in the Boardroom.