How the Best Apologies Are Made

By Brett Beasley

For some leaders, leadership means "never having to say you're sorry." But new research suggests that they are overlooking the profound benefits a good apology has to offer.


Istock 1289570680

Judy (Barbra Streisand): "Love means never having to say you're sorry"
Howard (Ryan O'Neal): "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."

[From the comedy film What’s Up Doc? (1972)]

Many of us would agree with Howard: Any healthy, long-term relationship will require apologies—many of them. But what about healthy leadership?

We don’t have to look far to see examples of leaders who rarely apologize. In fact, some leaders behave as though leadership means never having to say you’re sorry. And in one sense, they’re right: Most leaders don’t have to apologize. Often enough leaders can find ways to ignore their mistakes or otherwise blame others or justify their actions. It comes with the territory. Being in charge usually means having the power to say what counts as a success and what counts as a failure and to say who is responsible for each.

Assigning Responsibility

This means that leaders face the temptation to take credit (brag) and give blame rather than give credit (thank) and take blame (apologize). Many become convinced that, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “No sensible person ever made an apology.”

The Surprising Power of An Apology

Recent research reveals that behind leaders’ failure to apologize is what some scholars call a “forecasting error.” Leaders fail to accurately predict what apologizing will really feel like. They expect it to be awkward or humiliating. But they’re often surprised to find that apologizing isn’t as bad as they thought it would be.

Joost Leunissen (U. of Southampton) and his colleagues demonstrated this effect in a series of studies in which they invited participants into the lab and asked them to predict how bad the experience of apologizing would be. Then they had the participants actually apologize. The person who had done something wrong overestimated the bad effects of the apology and underestimated the positive effects. 

The medical community learned several decades ago that apologies can dramatically improve a difficult situation. In the 1990s, a study looked at medical doctors’ apologies for malpractice. It found that doctors often hesitated to apologize. They expected an apology to make things worse. They thought it would result in a lawsuit or other negative reaction from the patient. But when one hospital made apologizing a regular practice, it saw its number of lawsuits decreased dramatically. And for cases that did go to court, settlements became smaller.

The researchers followed up the study with interviews and confirmed that the apologies were making the difference. Patients appreciated that the apology had restored their sense of justice. At the same time, it gave them confidence that what happened to them wouldn’t happen again, so they felt less of a need to sue in order to protect others.

Some states responded by making it easier for doctors to apologize by passing laws that guaranteed that apologies would be used against them in court. These states saw more apologies from doctors and fewer malpractice lawsuits.

Apologies and Leadership

Still, leaders may worry that apologizing will make them appear incompetent and cause them to lose their followers' trust. But studies suggest the opposite is often true. One outcome of a good apology is improved perceptions of trustworthiness and leadership ability. A study of ice hockey referees found that those who apologized for the mistakes they made during games were seen as better leaders compared to those who did not apologize for their errors.

Leaders are motivated—and pressured!—to be right. But perfection is not an option. This means that leaders have to consider not just how to get things right, but also how to restore trust and recover after their blunders. In fact, the recovery from an error, some researchers say, “may have just as much of an impact on followers as the mistake itself."

Apologies are the most potent ingredient in the recovery process. (In fact, they, have a nearly literal power to heal: One study linked apologies with physical health, especially in the form of reduced blood pressure.) Many victims of crimes would rather receive a genuine apology than cash compensation. Indeed, studies of restorative justice conferences—where a victim of a crime meets the perpetrator of the crime face-to-face—have found that victims rarely come seeking money or vengeance. They are more interested in receiving a genuine apology. Similarly, one study found that apologies was more effective than cash payments in convincing customers to remove negative reviews online.

What about "Sorry Syndrome"?

Because apologies are so powerful, they can also backfire—especially when they're misused or overused. Among strangers meeting for the first time, a simple apology like "Sorry for the rain," or "Sorry for the traffic," has been shown to boost perceptions of a person's trustworthiness because the person is showing empathy or concern for another's feelings, even when they don't have to. But when we develop what some have called "Sorry Syndrome" and apologize reflexively and unnecessarily (“I’m sorry, I have a question…”), we don't appear more trustworthy. If you struggle with reflexive apologies, try a simple shift to casual gratitude ("Thank you for listening..."), as this web comic illustrates.

Companies can be harmed by reflexive apologies as well: A study of the Uber ridesharing platform found that simple, automatic apologies after a customer had a bad experience tended to backfire by actually undermining customers' trust. To truly win back customers' trust, the apology needed to contain something more. Uber found that the best apologies contained not just an explanation and a commitment to do better but also a promotional coupon. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and in this case the key was a combination of actions and words that mutually reinforced each other.

Put it in Practice

Be sincere.

The advice to apologize comes with an important caveat: Apologies must be perceived as genuine in order for them to have a positive impact. When the recipient of an apology approaches it cynically or believes it is insincere, an apology can backfire. Instead of mending a relationship, it can deepen a rift. But sincere apologies lead employees to increased trust, higher employee satisfaction, and greater commitment to their organization. The most important things you can do to show the sincerity of your apology is to express authentic regret and truly acknowledge responsibility. Many apologies fail simply because they omit the statement, “I’m sorry”!

Explain, don’t excuse.

It can be helpful to review what happened and offer as much transparency as possible. However, avoid the temptation to excuse or justify your actions. The point is that you owe the person who has been harmed an explanation. Once they see why the offense occurred, they will be more confident that it won’t happen again.

Offer a way to repair.

The point of the apology is to set aside your need to maintain your own image and instead involve the other person. Allowing them to have some say in how things ought to be repaired and asking for their forgiveness helps to restore some of the agency and control that is taken when someone is harmed.

Part of aiming for moral excellence is also recognizing that you can’t aim perfectly all the time. Thus, making amends will always be a crucial part of the moral life. Alice Walker captured something of this when she encouraged people “to really try hard not to cause harm—to cultivate a way of life that is harmless” while also reminding that “if you harm some folks along the way, well, that’s why the apology was born.”

An Apology Checklist (Adapted from Lewicki et al., 2016):

  1. Express regret. (“I’m sorry.”)

  2. Explain, but don’t excuse.

  3. Acknowledge responsibility.

  4. Show why this won’t happen again.

  5. Offer a way to repair and/or reconcile.

  6. Ask for forgiveness.

Related Content

Rejuvenation at Work:  Leveraging Connections for Employee Engagement

Rejuvenation at Work: Leveraging Connections for Employee Engagement

Resolutions, diets, the latest exercise routines - we are inundated with “new year, new you” messages each January. This time of year also marks a bit of a reset at work - many of us return to the office after extra time with loved ones over the holidays.

As we consider our priorities and well-being, our work is rightly a key focus. The workplace is where many of us spend most of our time, alongside the people with whom we endeavor to create meaning and impact. The time is right for reevaluation and rejuvenation. And the attention business leaders should pay to their own engagement at work - and that of their employees - is a year-round issue.…

The Courage to Stand Up:  CEO of Deloitte Consulting on Ethical Leadership

The Courage to Stand Up: CEO of Deloitte Consulting on Ethical Leadership

Skill in enterprise communication, courage to voice values, and willingness to experiment - these are among the "under-appreciated and under-discussed" skills that leaders must embrace for prosperity and impact. 

Dan Helfrich, Chair and CEO of Deloitte Consulting LLP, sat down with us to share his insights on cultivating moral courage, finding balance at work, and how ethical leaders can contribute with impact despite the high velocity of today's changing business landscape. …