Tales of corporate scandal and political misdeeds have made spectacular headlines in recent years — just the mention of Enron or Bill Clinton conjure up memories of those offenses.
But on a day-to-day basis, most people don’t deal with such large-scale scandals. Instead, they are confronted with relatively innocuous mistakes — the kinds of mistakes that could eventually break down trust and possibly even derail a career.
There’s a reason that a simple apology doesn’t always re-establish the trust that they once enjoyed, according to new work by Kurt Dirks, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Olin School of Business at Washington University in St. Louis. People’s reactions to apologies vary widely depending on the nature of the transgression.
When a doctor misdiagnoses a patient’s illness, an accountant errs in his calculations, or a manager misjudges a situation, reversing the damage caused by the mistake is trickier than simply saying you’re sorry. Getting people to accept the apology is a matter of understanding how your apology will be interpreted, Dirks said. With an honest mistake, for example, (assuming full blame is seen as a kind of redemption) people tend to forgive when someone fully owns up to a mistake.
However, owning up to the mistake won’t repair trust when the errors were caused intentionally or by incompetence. In those circumstances any kind of apology could do harm that would be difficult to repair.
“For issues of morality, there’s an assumption that once you’ve committed an immoral act, you’ll probably do it again,” Dirks said. “Even if you try to fully accept blame for a breach of integrity, people’s brains have a hard time believing it.”
For immoral acts, such as defrauding investors or falsifying a resume, people are more apt to accept your apology if you explain that the circumstance was beyond your control.
“That way, you admit the error, but you don’t admit guilt. Shifting the blame, rather than apologizing and taking responsibility, is a more effective way of restoring people’s trust in you,” Dirks said.
It is often tempting for someone to say nothing at all about a mistake, but that’s the worst thing you could do, Dirks said. Silence is always a bad idea.
“In all situations, silence is the worst option,” Dirks said. “From a trust standpoint, it doesn’t have the effect a denial does in trying to rid yourself of guilt. Nor does silence show redemption through an apology.”
Considering how many industries are dependent on good customer relations, the ability to recognize the best way to overcome a transgression could have a huge impact on a business’ success, Dirks said.
Apologies can only be successful when both individuals and institutions understand how people view the situation. With that knowledge, it is possible to determine what kind of apology is warranted to mend the breach of trust.
There are signs that some industries are starting to figure this out. For example, healthcare workers have started examining their longstanding policy of denying errors and being evasive in taking responsibility.
Dirks said that the medical field is starting to realize that if an apology is made in the right context — either by taking the blame for mistakes or passing the blame for deliberate problems — then it could reduce the number and consequences of malpractice lawsuits.