Apologizing, particularly in the workplace, requires navigating a delicate landscape. A well-executed apology can mend conflicts, rebuild trust, and foster teamwork, but it’s rarely easy to find the best approach to apologize. What kind of apology works best? A new study found that to make an effective apology, it’s always best to use language that challenges gender stereotypes.
Sarah Doyle, a researcher at the Management College of the University of Arizona, and her colleagues. wanted to establish what constitutes an effective apology in the workplace, and whether the content of the apology looks different depending on the gender of the apologizer. Their study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
The team used a previous study to define “masculine” and “feminine” language, the first one being more assertive, confident and self-assured and the second one described as warm, communal, and nurturing. They then labeled apologies with more masculine language as “agentic” and those with feminine language as “communal.”
Overall, those who challenged gender stereotypes were seen as delivering more effective apologies. Women who delivered masculine-style apologies were seen as displaying higher levels of assertiveness, while men giving apologies with more stereotypically feminine language were seen as having more interpersonal sensitivity.
To illustrate their findings, the researchers analyzed public responses to apology posts from celebrities on X (formerly Twitter). They looked at 87 apology posts in X (formerly Twitter) from celebrities, including comedian Kevin Hart, actor Tyler Posey, TV personality Kendra Wilkinson and singer Lizzo. They found that the way the public reacted to those tweets supports the idea that apologizers benefit by violating gender stereotypes.
“The female celebrities who delivered apologies that were higher in these masculine qualities were especially likely to receive these benefits,” Doyle said in a news release. For women delivering an apology, a one-point increase in agentic language (related to confidence), gauged on a five-point scale, resulting in an average of 17,000 extra likes.
The researchers then worked with a group of 366 working adults, who participated in a scenario in which their accountant sends them an email apologizing for making a mistake. Individuals were randomly allocated into four groups, classified by a male or female accountant delivering a stereotypically masculine or feminine apology.
The participants had to evaluate the apology and decide whether they would continue employing the accountant. The researchers did two other variations of the experiment. First, asking people to respond to the accountant’s apology, and then, using a scenario of a paperwork error by a nurse to see if using a female occupation would change the results.
Data from all the experiments in the study showed counter-stereotypical apologies were the most effective. In the case of women, issuing an apology that challenges gender stereotypes led to an average increase of 9.7% in the perceived effectiveness of the apology. For men, it resulted in an average perceived effectiveness increase of 8.2%.
Re-thinking our apologies
In essence, according to Doyle, there are numerous approaches to offering an apology and taking the time to consider it can be beneficial.
“I think people assume that ‘I’m sorry’ is a consistent and effective way to apologize, but there are a lot of different ways to say that,” Doyle said in a news release. “Not all apologies are the same, and it can help to be a little bit more deliberate about the language that you’re using and the content that is included in your apology.”
These insights prompt a re-evaluation of apology strategies in the workplace.
The researchers hope the results can lead people to think beyond how often we apologize and to put more focus on how we communicate. While most of the literature suggests women apologize too much and men not enough, this is an oversimplification, they said. It’s not only about frequency but also about building apologies differently.
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