Not all apologies are created equal, according to a study led by Roy J. Lewicki, Irving Abramowitz Memorial Professor Emeritus, at the Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
Lewicki’s study, published in the May 2016 issue of the journal “Negotiation and Conflict Management Research,” used six elements of an effective apology found by previous studies to see which were the most effective. He defined an “effective apology” as one that is more likely to remedy an injustice or repair broken trust.
In two separate experiments, Lewicki and his co-authors tested how 755 people reacted to apologies. He found that the more elements included in an apology, the more effective it was.
“Apologies really do work,” said Lewicki. “But you should make sure you hit as many of the six key components as possible.”
These elements include:
- Acknowledgment of responsibility
- Offer of repair
- Expression of regret
- Explanation of what went wrong
- Declaration of repentance
- Request for forgiveness
While the best apologies contained all six elements, not all of these components are weighted equally, the study found.
“Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility,” Lewicki said. “Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake.”
The second most effective element was an offer of repair.
“One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap,” he said. “But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage.”
The next three elements, expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong and declaration of repentance, were essentially tied for third.
Although forgiveness is often a common component of a traditional apology, Lewicki found it is the least effective element.
“That’s the one you can leave out if you have to,” he said.
Lewicki’s first study included 333 adults who read a scenario in which they were the manager of an accounting department that was hiring a new employee.
At a previous job, the potential employee had filed an incorrect tax return that understated a client’s capital gains income. When confronted about the issue, the job candidate apologized.
The participants were told that the apology contained one, three or all six of the apology components. They were then asked to rate on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (very) how effective, credible and adequate the apology statement would be.
The second study included 422 undergraduate students who read the same scenario as the first study. But instead of being told which components the apology contained, they read actual apologies that included anywhere from one to six statements based on the six elements.
For example, with acknowledgment of responsibility, the apology statement read, “I was wrong in what I did, and I accepted responsibility for my actions.”
They again rated how effective, credible and adequate the apology statement would be.
The results of the two studies were not identical, but researchers found they were very similar. In both studies, the more elements the apology contained, the more effective it was rated.
When the elements were evaluated one at a time, there was general consistency in the importance of the components across the two studies.
Lewicki noted that, in this work, participants simply read apology statements. But the emotion and voice inflection of a spoken apology may have powerful effects as well.
“Clearly, things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology,” he said.
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