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Corporate apologies. Beware the pitfalls of saying sorry. (2015)

“Although people often think they want apologies, they also are attracted to strength and confidence … people accord more status to those who express anger than to those who express sadness or remorse

Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford University 26 October 2015.

“Apologies are in the air these days. This month, outgoing Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley took responsibility for the consumer product giant’s weak performance at the company’s annual meeting and promised improvements. United’s new (and currently sidelined) CEO Oscar Munoz apologized to the company’s employees and passengers for its poor treatment of them. Pope Francis apologized – again – for the scandals bedeviling the Catholic church. Volkswagen apologized for selling cars with software designed to defeat pollution control regulations.…

“Virtually every company and person is, at some point, going to screw up. So the question becomes, if, and how, you should apologize.

“…. people accord more status to those who express anger than to those who express sadness or remorse. Both anger and sadness are negative emotions, likely to be expressed when things have gone wrong. But one emotion connotes power, and the other does not.

“Although people often think they want apologies, they also are attracted to strength and confidence and often overestimate how much they will value an apology. This is why apologizing, and doing so in a way that maintains confidence, is trickier than it might look.

Access the full article here: Corporate apologies

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  1. Matt Nixon says:

    Apology is an interesting and under-researched area. Skilful apology is actually necessary, but not sufficient, for catharsis and real forgiveness. PR and Comms experst usually agree that:

    • Apologising is a high stakes game for the CEO and the organisation given the potential loss of face and liability at issue.
    • It has nevertheless become more common – even fashionable – for leaders to apologise on behalf of their organisations.
    • Fear of the possible legal risks created is lessening, and there are increasing moves to enable apologies to replace legal processes (eg a lot of medical malpractice suits might never reach court if the doctors would just admit the errors and apologise).
    • Insincere and half-baked apologies do more harm than good.

    It seems to me we complicate these things too much. The point about an organisation that is going through a sincere, authentic metamorphosis and wants to get out of what I call ‘Pariah’ territory, is that the rest of the world (or significant groups within that world) don’t trust it, and don’t think it understands the role it has played in causing its crises.

    Given the personhood generously allowed by the law to organisations, it doesn’t seem too steep a requirement to ask those persons to enter debates with those who are angry at them and to follow some of the same rules of engagement that we all follow in interpersonal conflicts:

    • Being defensive is normal, and we all have to learn to stand our ground and explain what we did and our motivations for doing it; no one reasonable thinks organisations should just cave into their critics. But defending without listening fully to the accusations and considering the possibility of one’s own behaviour being at fault is troublingly narcissistic behaviour.
    • Skilled negotiators recognise that a lack of preparedness to apologise is damaging to trust and respect over time. The first thing that a sincere apology does is acknowledge care for the other person’s state of upset, even if the apologiser does not think it’s warranted. By skillful enquiry, an apologiser can figure out what the (perceived) facts are and what their own behaviour has contributed to the situation of upset. For maximum points, they will be able to diagnose this failure with minimum prompting, and identify how they are going to make amends, and how they are going to change to avoid a repeat performance
    • Equally, insincere or superficial apologies are trust destroyers, as they betoken a lack of respect for the other person’s feelings or status.