Sorry or Not Sorry? Why Companies Should Apologize

Im sorry graphic for post

There’s nothing like getting a heartfelt apology. And nothing more disappointing than an apology that feels insincere. Setting aside the snark of the Internet – just search for #sorrynotsorry and you’ll see why – apologies are REALLY HARD. They are hard for us as individuals in the course of being human, but they are even harder for organizations.

Why?

It’s Complicated!

In their article “The Organizational Apology: A Step-by-Step Guide”  in last September’s Harvard Business Review, co-authors Maurice E. Schweitzer, Alison Wood Brooks and Adam D. Galinsky, write that humans are predisposed psychologically to avoid apologies. So the fact that we are human makes it even harder to apologize if we’re doing so on behalf of an organization. Ouch.

Even more telling is the authors’ suggestion that as soon as we wear our organizational hat, we are far more likely to look at situations from a legal point of view.

“Even a leader who isn’t actively consulting with an attorney may worry that an apology could create legal problems,” they say. “Companies need to stop thinking this way. Most apologies are low cost – and many create substantial value.”

If your organization hasn’t thought about how apologies might be given and under what circumstances, the rest of the article poses 4 questions to consider whether an apology is warranted and suggests the right and wrong ways to apologize, keeping in mind the audience, timing and details of preparing one.

It’s no surprise that business leaders aren’t sure how to apologize since crisis communicators and business advisors often disagree on the tactical side of delivering apologies.

But is our hesitation to apologize part of our culture? Another article in the Harvard Business Review from 2012 analyzed cultural differences between Americans’ approach to apologies and that of the Japanese.

“Our own work found that a core issue is differing perceptions of culpability: Americans see an apology as an admission of wrongdoing, whereas Japanese see it as an expression of eagerness to repair a damaged relationship, with no culpability necessarily implied. And this difference, we discovered, affects how much traction an apology gains.”

Are we so worried about who is to blame that we have trouble offering sincere apologies at all?

Time after time, crisis communicators and reputation management experts advocate swift, sincere apologies. Yet every week, we see another example of a corporate leader delivering an insincere or stilted wreck of an apology.

It turns out, though, that there is a body of research which shows that apologies can affect stock prices immediately. Sincere, sad, responsible? Stock price recovers. Smiling, insincere? Stock price may be affected – and not in a good way. You can read the story about smiling during a crisis in Cyber Alert.

It’s time to remember the importance of sincerity and communicating from the heart. The right apology is part of that sincerity.