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When NOT to Apologize at Work

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It may sound counterintuitive, but leaders should almost always apologize. Except when they when leaders should apologize at workshouldn't. That’s right – to set the best example and foster a positive, motivated environment, leaders should hold themselves accountable for any mistakes and let their employees and colleagues know when they’re sorry. Yet there are those times when apologies are not in order – sometimes it’s not easy, but it is necessary.

Top 3 reasons not to apologize:

1. When someone messes up and you have to give feedback: In this case, there is no need for “sorry” because, well, you didn’t do anything wrong necessarily. If someone makes a mistake it is your job to make him or her aware of it so they can improve, and acting as if you’re sorry could lessen the impact of what you’re trying to teach them. Be the authority here, and use this as an opportunity to show strong leadership.

2. When you fire someone or lay him or her off: This is a tough one. No one enjoys being put in this position but it’s one of the realities of leadership. If you saw George Clooney in “Up in the Air” you’ll remember that even though traveling the country laying off workers pained him, he kept his composure, never apologized, and did what had to be done. It may seem cold, but in the end it is the best tactic. You’re not belittling them, and you’re also retaining your own position.

3. When there's a mandate from above that you don't like you have two options, and neither one is an apology!:

Option One: Speak your mind! Stand your ground – if a mandate comes to your attention that affects you and/or your employees and it doesn’t sit well with you, apologizing for your concern and your convictions is a bad move. You’re a leader, so act like one. You have every right to voice your concerns in a respectful manner – no apologies necessary.

Option Two: Represent the Company. Even if you don't like it, if there's a directive for senior management we need to do right by them and by the company, and enforce a new policy or make a change without sabotaging the effort with our own negative response. 


Karlin Sloan, MA is the CEO of Karlin Sloan & Company, a leadership development consultancy that empowers executives and their organizations to become smarter, faster, and better. She is the author of Smarter, Faster, Better; Strategies for Effective, Enduring, and Fulfilled Leadership (Jossey-Bass 2006), and the creator of The Resilience Project, a series of programs based on creating greater resilience and long-term sustainability in global organizations. For more information on Karlin Sloan & Company, visit us on the web at

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Karlin Sloan is the founder and CEO of Karlin Sloan and Company, Ms. Sloan provides organization development consulting, training and executive coaching to clients the U.S., Europe, South America and Asia. She is the author of Smarter, Faster, Better; Strategies for Effective, Enduring, and Fulfilled Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2006) and Unfear (January 2011).
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