The Leader's Code

Excellence in leadership—grounded in science

The 3 Keys to a Real Apology

To err is human. To apologize is humane.

Conflict is a natural and inevitable part of being human. At home or in the workplace, different opinions, perspectives, and values intersect to create interactions that are challenging and taxing to navigate, even at the highest levels of leadership. For example, CEOs rate conflict management skills as their most important area for professional development.

Handling conflict can be even more challenging when we are the offending party. When we are responsible for hurting someone, we often get angry at the person we harmed, avoid the situation, or try to rationalize our behavior rather than to apologize for it.

However, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights the importance of apology in repairing and strengthening our relationships. This research examined how people responded when those who offended them offered an apology. The longitudinal nature of this investigation also meant that the researchers could examine what effect the apology had after the event occurred and track forgiveness levels in the weeks ahead.

When participants received an apology after the conflict, the research team found that the level of forgiveness towards the transgressor rose significantly several weeks after the occurrence. Further, the level of anger the individuals felt towards the ‘offender’ significantly decreased after the apology.

Two major factors contributed to these positive outcomes:

First, the transgressor was seen as more valuable as a relationship partner, since the apology signified the level of importance the transgressor placed on the relationship. The apology also made the individual who was harmed feel more confident in the strength and stability of the relationship moving forward.

Second, and equally important, the transgressor was seen as less likely to engage in hurtful behaviors in the future and genuinely desiring that the conflict end.

What were the most effective forms of apology?

Given the positive impacts of apologies to enhance the strength and sustainability of a personal or professional relationship, the research team was interested in uncovering the distinguishing features an effective apology.

Here is what they found:

  1. Say “I’m sorry.” Not surprisingly, openly acknowledging regret for the incident was an important element of moving forward, a feature which has also been noted in research conducted through the Harvard Negotiation Project.
  2. Offering a form of compensation. This signaled to the offended individual that the other person was genuinely remorseful for the harmful act, and interested in finding a way to facilitate the healing process.
  3. Take responsibility. In many situations, a "non-apology" is offered, in which the responsible party essentially dodges taking responsibility for their actions, but regrets any "inconvenience" or "hurt feelings" caused by their actions. It is a hollow statement of remorse, one that is deemed to be inauthentic and unhelpful. Fully accepting responsibility for offending actions, on the other hand, expedited the forgiveness process.

Despite our history with conflict, the vast majority of us struggle with making amends. We either avoid the conversation or make things worse with an awkward "‘non-apology."

Mistakes are an unavoidable part of life. But when our mistakes negatively impact others, we can use the opportunity to not only repair our bonds, but to strengthen them as well. The above research shows the importance of a genuine apology for restoring our relationships, and provides a roadmap to better equip us to engage in these conversations more effectively. By saying we’re sorry, offering compensation, and taking responsibility for our words or actions, we can repair damage to our relationships and reconnect with the people around us.

Craig Dowden holds a Ph.D. in Psychology with a specialization in business.

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