The art of apologising

As companies are starting to realise, saying sorry can take the heat out of a situation, but you must show real contrition rather than distant regret.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Despite what Elton John sang, sorry seems to be the easiest word. In February, the Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd apologised in parliament to all Aborigines for laws and policies that had 'inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss' on the nation's indigenous people.

Rudd was following in the footsteps of Tony Blair who, towards the end of his time in Downing Street, expressed his 'deep sorrow' for the slave trade. (He had ticked off the Irish potato famine at the beginning of his term of office.) Such apologies - necessarily prefixed with 'historic' - are becoming the stock-in-trade of politicians in touch with their softer side.

But corporates, too, are feeling contrite. US toy company Mattel has apologised to its customers for deficiencies in its Chinese-made toys, and then to the Chinese people for suggesting, in the first round of apologies, that the faults resulted from Chinese manufacturing errors when in fact Mattel's American designers appear to have played a significant role. Most famously, Nike's founder and chairman Phil Knight apologised for the company's errors in 2005, a key step in the rehabilitation of the brand after the revelations of child labour in its supply chain.

All this contrition is a long way from the dictum of First World War admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher: 'Never explain, never apologise'. In part, it reflects a straightforward move towards greater emotional openness, so rapid that anyone now failing to emote on a daily basis is considered repressed. It's all wrapped up with personal growth, healing, authenticity, being your whole self and so on. Which, I should say, if only to avoid the inevitable therapeutic referrals, is all fantastic. I recommend the Daily Forgiveness Calendar ($14.99), with a suitably exculpatory quote for each day, available from forgivenessweb.com.

It is clearly a better world when we take responsibility for our wrongdoings and seek to make amends with a genuine apology. Apologies take the heat out of conflict, aid resolution and - crucially - provide opportunities for forgiveness. How often, when you've been treated badly by a friend or a firm, or a driver, do you need nothing more than to hear 'I'm sorry'? From a human being, of course, rather than the automated voice when you are stuck on hold.

And guess what, there may even be a business case for it. When a firm fouls up, the damage to its brand will certainly be less if there is a swift acceptance of responsibility and apology. It could even help in court: research by University of Illinois professor Jennifer Robbennolt discovered that 73% of legal plaintiffs settled the lawsuit when the defendant said sorry, compared to 52% of identical cases without an apology.

There's a burgeoning field in 'apology studies' in the social sciences, and a number of researchers have tried to throw some light on the question of saying sorry at work. In a paper presented to the International Conference on Interdisciplinary Social Sciences in 2007, Tamar Walfisch and her colleagues tracked the responses of workers to apologies. They found that apologies carried more weight from senior people; that face-to-face sorries counted for more than e-mail ones; and - perhaps the most surprising finding - that men were more likely to forgive following an apology than women. In this sense at least, it seems men are the fairer sex.

Philosophers aren't going to be left out, of course, especially when such conferences are held in places like the University of Granada, in sunny Andalusia. Nick Smith, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire and author of a rather wonderful new book, I Was Wrong: The meanings of apologies (Cambridge University Press), has described the requirements for a real - or 'categorical' - apology. It's the best working model for a 'proper sorry' that anyone has yet come up with. Smith's list includes 'acceptance of causal responsibility rather than mere expression of sympathy'. It has to be clear that the apologiser is saying sorry for what they did, rather than just for what happened. Consider President Reagan's statement on the Iran-Contra affair, which fails to meet this condition: 'It's obvious that the execution of these policies was flawed and mistakes were made.' In other words: boy, someone sure screwed up, but it wasn't me!

Another of Smith's critical factors is a 'shared commitment to violated moral principles'. The regretful party has to admit to having broken not only your rules of conduct, but their own: it is the difference between saying 'I'm sorry if that offended you' and 'I am sorry that I was offensive to you'.

Smith also insists that the person making the apology has the 'standing' to make it - in other words, that they are the appropriate agent. As Smith writes: 'I can only categorically apologise for an injury that I caused because I cannot accept responsibility otherwise.' That rules out Blair's apologies, and Pope John Paul II's apology for the Catholic church's role in the Crusades.

A real apology goes like this: 'I messed up doing X, which I recognise is a bad thing. I feel rotten about it. I am really sorry.' In a way, though, even a real apology is the easy bit. It is in the response that the glory lies. I may be sorry, but unless the injured party accepts my apology it will be of limited value. As Alexander Pope reminded us, to err is human, to forgive divine.

- Richard Reeves may be contacted at: richard@richard-reeves.com.

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