But First, Let Me Apologize

[Reposted from 99% Derisible]

Not too long ago, I made a mistake on a project at work. [The audience gasps, unwilling to accept that their heretofore perfect hero could be anything less than infallible.] It was not a hugely significant or costly error, but it was nevertheless a mistake, and, worse, one that could/should have been avoided. I was called out on it and set about fixing it as well as I could, as quickly as I could. Before I did so, I apologized. Specifically, I said “I am sorry.”

Explaining the story shortly afterwards, (this happened while I was with a friend), my friend chided me, not for making the careless error that got me here but, rather, for apologizing. “Never apologize in business,” my friend said. “If you say you’re sorry, people will treat you like a doormat and just walk all over you.”

I was slack-jawed. I couldn’t believe that this was the common wisdom and best practice. Afterwards, I went around and asked more people to confirm or deny that sentiment. To a person, they all did. This raised a few troubling and interrelated issues for me.

First, yes, you should apologize in business because your professional relationships are still real relationships with real people. Everyone should be more willing to recognize mistakes, apologize, and graciously accept apologies overall. It’s the correct way to treat people, regardless of context.

Toxic power politics shouldn’t rule our interactions with one another. And the common response that “if you apologize you become a doormat” is wrong and backwards; it absolves the person who treats others poorly while blaming the victims of that mistreatment. Apologizing isn’t a sign of weakness and power over others is not the right way to evaluate or exhibit personal worth.

When healthy human considerations are brushed aside for relational power, basic social functions break down. Mutual trust, not one-dimensional power (the power to inflict pain or impel to action) is the glue that keeps social organization intact. If we can’t trust and treat one another with respect and dignity, we wind up with a Machiavellian descent in internecine chaos. Humanity and the norms underpinning human society are inextricable from “the business world” because the agents of that world are human.

This is obviously a bigger than just the question of whether or not you should apologize at work. (You should). The more fundamental issue is how to manage and mitigate humanity in the ostensibly rational (and non-human) world of work.

How do you bring into balance the competing needs of who you are and what you do? We typically think of this in terms of the putative “work/life balance.” But that framework is insufficient. It says nothing of the mutual permeability of one’s work and personal lives. It’s not just the zero sum game suggested by “work/life balance” that merits consideration, but also the inter-operability of those two most dominant spheres of your life.

If your work and personal lives are separate, and you are separate within them, then when and where are you yourself? And with whom? Given how much more time we spend at our jobs than we do anywhere else, there’s a reasonable case that who we are at work is who really are.

Left to its own devices, the work self will overrun the supposedly separate and true self. (It’s all very Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). Where once hoursand working locations were regular and fixed, the internet has eroded clearly delineated borders between what/when/where is and is not work. I emphasized mutual permeability over simple “balance” because it is holistic compatibility, not the mere allocation of time, that really matters.

We are all accessible 24/7 by phone, can work anywhere on our laptops, and are incented to think of everything through a careerist prism, always. So it’s more than just labor hours that are distorted through the changing axioms of modern working life. Instead, we see the increasing predominance of an always-on mindset whereby work colors every thought and pervades every moment. Clearly, Mr. Hyde is winning the day.

But since work already overrides any attempt at “balance” and bleeds into every aspect of your personal lives, surely it is right and fair for the line between the two to be porous in both directions? If your job demands that you miss crucial moments with your children, surely they should reciprocate by helping with child care. If you are expected to leave dinner with friends to take a call, surely you should be able to leave work to take lunch with a friend. And if you spend more waking hours with your colleagues than loved ones, surely you should have the decency to frankly apologize and forgive mistakes.

This is not to say that our jobs should become touchy feely therapy sessions. Rather that we can and should not delude ourselves into thinking we *can* remove EQ from our working lives. Even if it were possible to wholly separate our work and not work lives (and thus our work and non-work selves), we may not want to do it.

Working against human/emotional impulses is a blow to our ability to behave ethically on a macro level as well. How can corporations behave socially responsibly if their constituent actors are discouraged from conducting themselves ethically in their day to day lives?

Furthermore, I reject the notion that we ought not to bring humanity into our work on egalitarian grounds. The dehumanization of labor — whether it is through the scrutiny and emotional labor of the service sector, or the atomization of middle managers in the knowledge economy — works against solidarity and labor rights. People need to see and experience humanity in one another to align and exercise strong collective bargaining power.

There is also a functional business case for the mutual permeability of our work and life selves, and the honest introduction of humanity and emotion into professional environments. Conflicts and professional problems are always bound up in emotion. But lacking freedom to interact as the emotional, feeling creatures we are, we lack the tools to resolve and fix them.

A culture wherein people cannot express how they feel, apologize, and forgive is a culture wherein they cannot take risks or cooperate for mutual goals.

This is not, to my mind, about working fewer hours. I value working and enjoy my work. Doing less of it wouldn’t make me happier. Nor is it about becoming best friends with your coworkers or coworkers with your best friends. Personally, I don’t particularly like office happy hours and holiday parties (there are exceptions). I like to spend my limited free time with my friends, not at obligatory work events. The important thing is living and working in a culture that recognizes your humanity no matter where and what you’re doing.

Being human in our working lives is essential to being human at all.

You can find more posts this like and subscribe to 99D at Derisible.net

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