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The Anatomy of an Apology
published by , on 12/04/2009

I am currently reading The Manager’s Book of Decencies – How Small Gestures Build Great Companies, by Stephen Harrison. Actually, it is more a field guide than a book, because it’s packed with real-life examples of decencies that result in major business impact, and that you can put to use in your company.

1619656.jpgExamples include: Greet coworkers personally. Remember to say thank you. For meetings you convene, be the first to sit down and the last to get up. Welcome visitors by name. Answer your own telephone. Give away recognition when things go well; hoard responsibility when they don’t. Convey bad news in person. When you make a mistake, admit it and apologize.

When it comes to this last one – apologizing – I just finished an interesting chapter that matches last week’s post particularly well: Executive Humility Decencies. In that chapter, Harrison explains that apologies are serious business.

All or Nothing

He even cites a research by Jennifer Robbennolt, Professor of Law and Psychology at the University of Illinois College of Law. In two studies, participants, ages 21 to 70, read a scenario describing a pedestrian-bicycle accident. They were asked to take on the role of the injured person and evaluate a settlement offer from the other party, based on information about the injuries, the other party’s conduct, and each party’s responsibility for causing the accident.

Professor Robbennolt found that when a full apology was given, 73% of the respondents would accept the settlement offer. When no apology was given, 52% would accept, but when a partial apology was given, only 35% would accept. Even when she changed the scenario and made the evidence of fault less clear, a partial apology was still often perceived no different to no apology at all. Results also showed that the severity of the injury mattered: the more severe the injury, the more the need to fully apologize. It seems that a late or a bad apology is WORSE than no apology at all.

The 4 R’s

Not surprisingly, when we dig a little deeper in order to find out more about the anatomy of an effective apology, we end up in the field of medicine. Apparently, a lot of health care providers understand and practice what to do after unexpected outcomes – to apologize (*). Most of them use the 4 “R”s of Apology:

Recognition: knowing when an apology is in order. An apology needs to ensure that the injured party knows that you understand specifically what you did wrong.

Regret: responding empathetically. This is an indication that you accept personal responsibility for the injury. Here it is important to remember that an expression of regret is not an admission of guilt or fault.

Responsibility: owning up to what’s happened. Be accountable for the problem, even if it was unforeseeable. This is the part where most apologies end up being partial expressions of regret, impoverished by exceptions and ‘but’ statements. As the above research of Professor Robbennolt points out, a bad apology is worse than no apology at all.

Remedy: making it right. Explain to what’s being done to correct the problem and express your commitment to not make the same mistake in the future.

Finally, back to Harrison’s book, from which I’d like to quote how he links apologizing and vulnerability to leadership:

During the course of his or her career, every leader will be tested by adversity, and sometimes the leader will fail. At these times, employees and other stakeholders are watching very carefully. When they see the leader as a fallible person who makes mistakes and has the decency to acknowledge them, take responsibility, and apologize if appropriate, the will not abandon the leader. Followers demand neither flawlessness nor omniscience. (…) In the end, followers demand leaders who are worthy of being followed.
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(*) Source: Healing Words: The Power Of Apology In Medicine, by Michael S Woods, Jason Isaac Star, Hilda J Bruckner

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