There are six components that make or break an apology, a new study finds. Depending on many of these you include, your feelings of regret will either be accepted or get a cold shoulder.
We’ve told you how to become a better public speaker, but today we’re going to talk about something that statistically, people do a lot more of than holding presentations: messing up. You forgot to feed their cat, spilled coffee on your boss’ white shirt or brought a regular burger when asked for a veggie one; whatever you did, you genuinely feel sorry and want the other person to understand this.
But what’s the best way to do it? Ohio State University researchers have the answer — they have identified six components that make of break an apology in a recent study.
“Apologies really do work, but you should make sure you hit as many of the six key components as possible,” said Roy Lewicki, lead author of the study and professor emeritus of management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.
Lewicki and his co-authors performed two separate experiments in which they tested how 755 participants reacted to apologies containing one through to all six of these elements:
1. Expression of regret
2. Explanation of what went wrong
3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
4. Declaration of repentance
5. Offer of repair
6. Request for forgiveness
The first study involved 333 adults recruited online through Amazon’s MTURK program. All the participants read a scenario in which they were the manager of an accounting department that was hiring a new employee. The candidate had filed an incorrect tax return at a previous job, understating a client’s income. Half the respondents were told that the applicant just wasn’t knowledgeable in all relevant tax codes. The other half were told that he knowingly filed the tax return incorrectly. They would then confront the candidate, who would apologize.
Participants were informed that the apology contained either one, three or all six of the components listed above; they were then asked to rate how credible, adequate and effective the apology would be.
The second study included 422 undergraduate students. They received the same scenario as in the previous study and were asked to rate the apology, but weren’t told about which components it would contain. Instead, they read an actual apology of one to six statements, each based on one of the components, such as “I was wrong in what I did, and I accepted responsibility for my actions” as an acknowledgment of responsibility.
While the two studies’ results weren’t identical, they were very similar. For both studies, the more elements that the apology contained the more effective it was rated. There was a general consistency in the importance of the components when evaluated one at a time, with slight variations between the two studies.
Participants rated apologies with all six elements as being the best at conveying a sense of regret and a desire to make amends, but not all of these components are equal. If you’re pressed for time, two of them are crucial to having your apology accepted: acknowledgement of responsibility and an offer of repair.
“Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake,” Lewicki said. “[Another] concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying, ‘I’ll fix what is wrong,’ you’re committing to take action to undo the damage.”
Expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong and declaration of repentance were all tied together for third place for importance in an apology. The least effective element of an apology is a request for forgiveness.
“That’s the one you can leave out if you have to,” Lewicki said.
The value of each of the six components was the same whether the apology was related to failures of competence or integrity. But overall, participants were less likely to accept apologies when the job applicant showed a lack of integrity rather than a benign lack of competence.
Lewicki noted that, in these artificial, laboratory conditions, participants simply read apology statements. But the emotion and tone 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 concluded.
The full paper titled “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies” has been published online in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research and can be read here.