6 scientifically proven ways to say sorry at work

Feeling the need to apologise to a colleague, but worried you might make things worse?

Three management and human resources experts – Roy Lewicki and Robert Lount, from Ohio State University, and Beth Polin, from Eastern Kentucky University – tested 755 people to see what sort of apologies work best. Their research appeared in the May 2016 issue of the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research.

Their answer: do as many as you can of the following six things, especially the first two:

  1. Acknowledge it was your fault. The authors see this as the first key to an effective apology. “The most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility,” says Lewicki. “Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake.”
  2. Offer to make things right. By committing to take action, you show your apology is more than just talk. The researchers say their survey respondents viewed this as being almost as important as acknowledging responsibility.
  3. Explain what went wrong. Context can help to diffuse some of the concerns of the person at whom you’re aiming your apology.
  4. Express regret. Explain you understand the effects of what you did and wouldn’t do it again.
  5. Declare your repentance. Provide an additional sense that you feel bad about your actions and want to change.
  6. Ask for forgiveness. The researchers ranked this as the least important element of an apology. Best to ask for forgiveness after you’ve taken the blame and offered to repair the damage.

Professional development: Learn how to communicate with confidence

These six factors also explain why some classic non-apologies sound so lame.

If you say, “I’m sorry for any offence the statement may have caused”, you may sound like you’re apologising, but you’ve not accepted blame, offered to fix things, provided an explanation, given any sense of repentance or asked for forgiveness. And by making your statement conditional on the other person’s offence, you’ve made sure you are barely even expressing regret. 

Sorry, but that won’t do.

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June 2016
June 2016

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