I’m not a huge Lena Dunham fan. She’s an outspoken champion for women, so I feel obligated to pay attention to her. But her show hasn’t enticed me; I read Not That Kind of Girl and personally found much of it unsympathetic and unrelatable. I’ve subscribed to her newsletter, Lenny, but more often than not I just roll my eyes at the titles and delete them. For the most part, her work is just not my style . . . and because of that I often don’t give her a break.
For some reason I read her recent post for LinkedIn: Sorry, Not Sorry: My Apology Addiction. (Maybe it had something to do with her fantastic headshot at the top of the article.) Once I got past the trendy title, and the Beyonce-referencing first paragraph, I was ready to dismiss the article as yet another redundant—however earnest and frankly accurate— piece about how women apologize too much and need to learn to have more confidence. But then I got to this paragraph:
“I say sorry all day . . . I am a woman who is sometimes right, sometimes wrong but somehow always sorry. And this has never been more clear to me than in the six years since I became a boss.” (emphasis mine)
I realized that Dunham was talking about my experiences. As someone who runs a team and has direct reports, I have to make decisions and tell people what to do. Most of the time the team works in harmony. But as with anything, screw ups and disagreements happen. Sometimes decisions have to be made that can’t please everyone. This falls to me, and I’m ok with that.
However, time and time again, I have caught myself apologizing and trying to make amends with people after I’ve had to make an authoritative decision or given someone the constructive criticism they needed. Most of the time people are not even looking for an apology, explanation, or consolation prize. I just feel compelled to do it! I can’t stop myself! I watch in horror as I listen to myself undermine my own authority and decisions. Often I am sure I make things only more awkward by suddenly becoming super friendly and understanding, after an uncomfortable conversation with someone about why their work is subpar. I’m not saying that there is no place for listening, showing understanding, and compromise in the workplace, but the type of behavior Dunham and I are discussing only breeds confusion at best, and disrespect or false expectations at worst.
Lately I have made promises to myself to stand by my decisions more confidently, and to not feel obligated to make everyone like me after a stressful disagreement. I remind myself it is ok for me to express dissatisfaction and frustration. It is ok for me to be decisive and take leads on things I am ultimately responsible for.
I felt like Dunham was speaking right to me in her article. Not only does she explain how this cycle of pseudo-apologizing to mask other feelings usually only makes you feel worse, but she also makes this argument for stopping an apology addiction:
“But what do you replace sorry with? Well for starters, you can replace it with an actual expression of your needs and desires. And it turns out when you express what you want (without a canned and insincere apology) everyone benefits. Your employees know what you want from them and can do their jobs with clarity and pride.”
It had never occurred to me to think about it in this way. I had ideas about why apologizing and appeasing people had been problematic for me, but Dunham points out that it is also a communication problem for the other employees. Both they and I could benefit from a change in my behavior. Miscommunication is the lead cause of most of the problems I’ve encountered in my work. Removing this counterproductive, gender-performative behavior will help me become a better leader and also make work life better for those around me.
I’m glad that I read this article, because this is a motivator for me to stick to all those promises I made myself to stand up for myself, display more confidence, and be a better boss while I’m at it.