Just Not Sorry

A ‘Just Not Sorry’ app has recently gained publicity, in which women in particular are encouraged to stop saying sorry. It is said to be inspired by an American “life coach”, Tara Mohr, who wrote a book, Playing Big, which encourages women to be more positive and assertive. Mohr suggests that by using words like sorry they are in danger of projecting an overly self-effacing manner. Others have joined the fray. Joan Kingsley, author of The Fear-Free Organization, has argued that by, for example, beginning emails with apologies we are making the recipient think that we have already done something wrong before we have.

How seriously should we take it? Is saying sorry simply being polite? There are clearly many reasons why we use the term. It is almost an automatic response if people bump into each other when going through doors or getting in and out of trains or buses. Sometimes it is a genuine apology for an error or a delay in doing something. Indeed perhaps recipients of bullying or abuse in the workplace would like more sorries?

There is no strong evidence that women are more prone to use particular words than men. In any case, word selection depends on the context and purpose behind utterances. Nor is there strong evidence that women are more polite, for example that they interrupt less. Perhaps even if they were more polite the implication might be that men should be more polite too.

However, there are potentially serious issues here. The continuation of sexual discrimination and stereotyping. The way organizational practices do or do not foster self-confidence in employers, customers and service users. How organizations deal with errors and the need to develop cultures in which errors are treated as opportunities to learn and improve performance.

British people may still have a reputation for politeness but as a nation we are, in my judgement, very poor at giving feedback – whether positive or negative. The evidence is that people prefer negative feedback to no feedback at all.

Genuine feedback, giving employees more discretion in how they do their jobs and involving them more in the wider organization, are the best means that organizations can  enhance self-esteem and ensure the full-utilization of talents. Such processes may also play a role in changing gendered mind sets, including assumptions about who apologises the most. Changing word use seems small beer compared with this. The world needs more employee involvement, not less sorries.

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Stephen Wood

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Professor of Management

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