Should Leaders Apologize? Sorry, but Research Says Maybe Not.

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These days, it seems like once a week, some public figure or another is making a controversial statement that’s met by many with demands for apologies and/or consequences. And general consensus would argue that, when a leader—corporate, political, or otherwise—realizes he or she has made an insensitive statement, a sincere apology is in order to save face, demonstrate character and make peace with the public. But recent research shows that, following a gaffe, apologizing might not be the right way to go.

Acknowledging the theory that “apologizing might make public figures appear weak and risk averse, which may make them less likeable and lead members of the public to want to punish them,” Columbia University’s Richard Hanania ran an experiment to test public response to leaders’ apologies. And the results were surprising: “The evidence suggests that when a prominent figure apologizes for a controversial statement, individuals are either unaffected or become more likely to desire that the individual be punished.”

In other words, for leaders who’ve said the wrong thing, apologizing won’t help. At best, the reaction will be neutral, but there’s a good chance the apology will make things worse.

Of course, this isn’t to say we should all stop apologizing. But in our leadership roles (and in our everyday lives, too), it’s important to consider why we’re apologizing.

“By definition, an apology is an acknowledgment of offense or failure, but words don’t always mean their dictionary definition: Context matters,” linguistics expert Dr. Deborah Tannen reminds us in a recent New York Times article. “Words are defined by how they’re used and an apology is used in many different ways, so it serves many different functions. Some apologies are meant to repair a relationship, like when you forget to pick up your friend at the airport. Some apologies show respect, like when you submit a report to your boss and it’s a day or two late. And some apologies are simply meant to smooth out a conversation.”

Apologies certainly aren’t necessary in all of these cases. When we’re showing respect, or simply trying to smooth over a conversation, per Dr. Tannen’s examples, those apologies may in fact be detrimental to our authority or status. But sometimes, apologizing really isn’t a bad idea: “If you’ve done something that has major negative consequences for someone else, it’s important to acknowledge if you value the health of the relationship,” says Dr. Tannen.

Here at Quantified, we’re focused on how leaders’ communication styles impact their message, and we believe there’s one important qualifier to Hanania’s findings: the quality of the apology, itself, may have a significant impact on the audience’s reaction to the apology. Whether you’ve messed up in your personal life or in a public sphere, the question may not be so much whether you apologize, but how. A perfunctory, obligatory apology may not do you any good, but a sincere, authentic apology (that you back up with action) is more likely to have a positive effect.

Three Communication Patterns of a Successful Apology

With that in mind, what should an apology look like? A recent article for The Cut outlines The Art of the Apology coauthor Dr. Beth Polin’s definition of an apology, which she says is a statement that contains one or more of the following six components:

  • An expression of regret — this, usually, is the actual “I’m sorry.”
  • An explanation (but, importantly, not a justification).
  • An acknowledgment of responsibility.
  • A declaration of repentance.
  • An offer of repair.
  • A request for forgiveness.

Here at Quantified, we want to look specifically at the most effective ways to communicate these components in order to rebuild trust with your audience.

An apology that contains all six components is most effective, she says, according to her research, but for those who can’t (or won’t) offer such a comprehensive apology, she says the acknowledgment of responsibility is the most important component. So let’s start there.

1.    Take Responsibility

If you’ve ever had your feathers ruffled by an apology that seems to skirt the blame (“Mistakes were made”)—or worse, put it back on you (“I’m sorry if you didn’t like what I said”)—you understand the importance of taking responsibility. So when it comes time to make your own apology, be sure you’re using “I” language to fully own your actions and their consequences.

I made a mistake, and I recognize that what I said was hurtful.

2.    Put Your Audience First

Dr. Polin’s second component is to explain without justifying. On its surface, that’s a tricky distinction, but what it comes down to is who the apology is really about. If you follow “I’m sorry” with “I was tired, and I was under a lot of pressure, and I would never have said/done that under normal circumstances,” you’re making excuses, and you’re making it all about you. Rather than asking for forgiveness, you’re asking for pity.

But, just like in any other communication event, if you put your audience first, you’ll get a much better response. Rather than going on and on about yourself, focus on them. Make it clear that you understand how you hurt your audience and why what you said or did was wrong.

What I said belittled you and undermined your intelligence in a way that wasn’t true or fair.


3.    Talk About the Future

Dr. Polin’s fifth component, an offer of repair, is critical if you want your apology to seem sincere and authentic rather than obligatory. “I’m sorry” on its own implies that you’re just looking to move on and put the incident behind you. But pair that with an offer for repair, and it becomes clear that, not only do you regret your behavior, but you want to do better moving forward. Use future-looking language to show your audience how you’re planning to use this opportunity to make changes for the better, and they’re more likely to take your apology to heart.

I pledge to be more cognizant of the weight of my words and use my platform more responsibly moving forward. 

(Of course, you have to follow through on that promise in order to completely regain—and keep—the trust you broke.)

So is an apology the right move? It depends. On what’s occurred and why you’re apologizing. But whenever you do decide to make an apology, consider these tips to ensure it comes across as heartfelt and authentic—because if you truly are sorry, you want your audience to know.