Apology Accepted? Is it helpful for leaders to apologize for things beyond their control?

I know it seems counter-intuitive. Why apologize for things we can’t control — the weather, a death,  the economy, or some breakdown in the system that no one could have anticipated, much less prevented!? Because it increases trust, according to Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School. And that’s interesting, isn’t it? We often talk about the importance of leaders developing trust by taking responsibility for what we do wrong,, or being consistent, or being fair, or being authentic, or being of service. These do, over time, create trusting relationships among colleagues and between leaders and followers. But it seems there’s a sweetness to apology for apology’s sake that creates a sense of connection between people — and rewards the apologizer!

apologyFrom Andrew O’Connell’s “daily stat” in the Harvard Business Review blog:

“An apology for something beyond anyone’s control, such as the weather, has the effect of making others trust the apologizer, says a team led by Alison Wood Brooks of Harvard Business School. For example, when a young man approached strangers in a train station on a rainy day and said, “I’m so sorry about the rain! Can I borrow your phone?” he was successful 47% of the time, compared with just 9% if he simply asked to borrow a phone. Past studies have shown that when culpability for negative situations is ambiguous, people reward those who take blame more than those who express remorse.”

SOURCE:  I’m Sorry About the Rain!: Superfluous Apologies Demonstrate Empathic Concern and Increase Trust

The implications for leaders are fascinating — if we want to make a connection, we need to meet people where they are, in the middle of situations generally beyond anyone’s control! Humans are social animals, and need social cues to understand each other, at the beginnings, middles and ends of relationships. Maybe one of the unappreciated qualities of effective leadership, at least up till now, is the empathic willingness to connect, however we can. Even if it means apologizing for something we had nothing to do with!
But let’s inject a little balance into this new idea: there’s a difference between apologizing for something like the weather to grease social wheels, and knee-jerk apologies for anything and everything. Leaders with the most effective social skills are guided by the relationship, situation and the energy of the moment. Factors like cultural difference (between nations or between men and women, for example) can also be important.

Women in particular need to consider the value of not apologizing, if they tend to apologize all the time.  Janet Paskin, in BusinessWeek, wrote about how great she felt when she stopped sending “apols” for every business transgression, big and small. “Hard truth: There’s a good chance no one missed you at the meeting or noticed your proposal was a few hours late. If that’s not the case, they’ll let you know.” It can become as meaningless as the “How-are-you-I-am-fine” ritual.

And according to psychologist Linda Sapadin, women in general apologize too much for things beyond their control. “By taking responsibility for things that aren’t your fault, you denigrate your self-esteem,” she says. The difference between apologies that create trust and reward the apologizer, and the ones that break credibility down seems to be whether the apologizer worries that it may really be their fault!

On the other hand, it may be that men and women just apologize differently. According to a University of Waterloo study reported by the Wall Street Journal, men are just as willing as women to apologize if they think they’ve done something to apologize for. Men just have a different idea of what defines “something wrong.” From study of daily apology journals, women were offended more often, and they offered more apologies for their own behavior. Yet men were just as likely as women to apologize if they believed they’d done something wrong.

So what’s a leader to do? What good leaders always do. Show up, pay attention and do their best. Use all social skills liberally, including the willingness to apologize for the weather, with discernment and (self) respect.

One comment

  1. […] balance and discernment are key. Sometimes a smile may be compassionate, but sharing it too often (like apologies) causes a leader to lose power (especially for women). Complicated and […]


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