Research shows that an apology goes a long way towards building trust and rebuilding trust with people.
Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, introduced the idea of the emotional bank account, a metaphor for the amount of trust in a relationship. When we make deposits, we are building trust. When we make withdrawals, the trust account balance becomes low or overdrawn and we must apologize sincerely to rebuild trust.
Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, talks about building Vulnerability-Based Trust where team members quickly and genuinely apologize to one another, they freely admit mistakes they’ve made, apologize for them, and ask for help in the future.
A different kind of apology, known as a superfluous apology, is when you say “I’m sorry” for something where you have no control. It is like apologizing for the rain – you have no control over the weather.
This type of apology emphasizes showing empathy and concern for the person and the situation, and focuses on building trust. It is based on a joint study from Harvard Business School and the University of Pennsylvania titled “I’m Sorry About the Rain! Superfluous Apologies Demonstrate Empathetic Concern and Increase Trust” published in the Social Psychological and Personality Science Journal.
In the paper, researchers acknowledge that current research “has conceptualized apologies as a device to rebuild relationships following a transgression” however take the concept of apologizing to a higher level.
The study focuses on individuals who “apologize for circumstances for which they are obviously not culpable (e.g., heavy traffic or bad weather). Superfluous apologies are defined as “expressions of regret for an undesirable circumstance for which the apologizer is clearly not responsible.”
In the workplace we have heard things like: Why should I apologize? I didn’t do anything wrong! This is a common response to the thought of apologizing to someone for something if we aren’t culpable. We all likely fall into this from time to time.
On the other hand, if we do or say something that warrants an apology – even though it may be difficult for some people to say “I am sorry” – most people will agree that apologizing is the right thing to do. Apologizing when we make a mistake or make a withdrawal makes complete sense! There is no question that a sincere apology can help us build or rebuild trust with people. But what happens when we aren’t culpable?
When we didn’t do anything wrong, superfluous apologies are harder than we may think.
I learned about this first-hand a few years ago working with a manufacturing company that was in the middle of a relationship crisis, and trying to recover from a very difficult situation in the workplace. This group was in conflict and unable to recover from something that the staff and management experienced together – albeit from different perspectives. While each group had their own version of the situation, both sides were equally angry, hurt and believed they had done nothing wrong.
In talking with the employees that were involved in this situation, I was consistently hearing that what the staff really wanted was an apology from management. The staff did understand that they weren’t able to go back and change what had happened. They also knew that they needed move on from this. However, they were not able to let go of receiving an apology.
When I shared this with management, I received comments back like “why should we apologize, we didn’t do anything wrong” and “they should be the ones apologizing to us” and “no way, this is not our fault” and “this is their fault” and “we had no control” and so on.
For management, the idea of apologizing was like admitting they were wrong – and handing the victory to the employees. This win/lose mindset (us against them) was a huge barrier for this organization to be able to move forward and recover from the situation.
In workplace situations like this, apologizing isn’t about being right or wrong. It is not about being weak or giving in or being manipulative. It is about demonstrating empathetic concern for others, their situation and how they are feeling. In the situation described above, the management group’s apology could have simply been a way to let the employees know that management was sorry that this situation happened and the impact that it had on everyone involved.
The author of a Fast Company article, points out that “the apologizer communicates that he has taken the victim’s perspective, acknowledges adversity, and expresses regret.”
The apology increases the victim’s trust in the apologizer. A sincere apology could open up the lines of communication and pave the way for a fresh start with a clean state between both groups.
The study referred to above was one of four different experiments that tested providing superfluous apologies with the research participants. One of the experiments involved an actor (on a rainy day) asking 65 people to borrow their cell phone. In half of the interactions, the actor said “I’m so sorry about the rain. Can I borrow your cell phone?” and in the other half the actor only asked “Can I borrow your cell phone?” The study showed that 47% of the individuals who received the apology gave the actor their phone, compared to only 9% of the individuals who received no apology.
The scientists attributed trust as the defining factor where “even in the absence of culpability, individuals can increase trust by saying ‘I’m sorry’—even when they are merely ‘sorry’ about the rain.”
To learn more about superfluous apology, check out the following
Maya Angelou said that “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Shana Ring is a Professional Certified Coach (PCC), President of Destination Leadership, and Founder of the EXPEDITION Coaching Program. She focuses on providing leadership coaching, coaching training, and consulting in the area of coaching and culture change, succession planning, leadership development and organizational effectiveness.