I have lots of experience in apologies. I give them, I take them – probably a few hundred times a year. They range from the ephemeral “Sorry” after brushing by someone in a store to the heartfelt, guilt-stricken mea culpa when I really mess up. I give some apologies better than others, and I don’t always recognize it when I make an awkward one. Even when I do recognize it, I don’t always understand why I bungled it. It turns out that apologizing is more complicated than I thought. There’s even an emerging “science” of the apology.
Last year researchers published a paper titled “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies.” Their study found that the best apologies contained these six elements:
- Expressing regret
- Explaining what went wrong
- Acknowledging responsibility
- Declaration of repentance
- Offer to repair or compensate
- Request for forgiveness
Not all six elements have equal value. The most important by far was acknowledging responsibility. The second most important was offering to repair or compensate. The least important was asking forgiveness.
Accepting responsibility can be difficult because it conflicts with our self-image of being a good and competent person. We may prefer to blame the other person or we want to point to extenuating circumstances because we don’t like being wrong.
In the workplace apologies can be very effective in restoring employee trust, especially in cases of termination or discrimination which involve deep feelings and emotions. Let’s look at a case where a bad apology cost the company $2 million.