The Art of Apologising - IEDP
  • Behaviour

The Art of Apologising

“Sorry seems to be the hardest word” sang Elton John – but new research co-authored by Cambridge Judge Business School’s David de Cremer now suggests that it really needn’t be.


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Why is the S-word so hard to utter?

Research co-authored by David De Cremer, KPMG Professor of Management Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School, identifies a key reason people find it so hard to apologise in the workplace; which is an overestimation of the potential negative effects apologising might have, compared to what they actually experience when they say sorry.

People fear apologising could undermine their status; that it may fuel demands for compensation, or cede power by providing the victim a choice of whether to forgive or not – but such fears are usually greater than what is actually experienced when they apologise.

By virtue of the same “forecasting error” – transgressors similarly underestimate the potential positive effects of apologising; such as a feeling of relief – the research found.

“The study shows that perpetrators don’t feel nearly as stressed when actually apologising than when they think about apologising,” said De Cremer.

The study, called “Forecasting Errors in the Averseness of Apologizing”, was published in the Social Justice Research journal. The research measured how “stressful,” “hard,” “unpleasant” or “humiliating” it would be to imagine apologising and to actually apologise, and, similarly, how “relieving,” “easy” or “rewarding” an apology would be. The authors, besides De Cremer, are Joost M. Leunissen of Southampton University, Marius van Dijke of Rotterdam School of Management, and Christopher P. Reinders Folmer of Erasmus School of Law in Rotterdam.

Earlier research by De Cremer found that people tend to overestimate the positive effect of receiving an apology following a breach of trust, not feeling as satisfied and happy as they predicted they would do.

“Taken together, these studies suggest that a mis-coordination seems to exist between the giver and receiver of an apology,” De Cremer said. “Victims want to receive apologies, though such apologies are often somewhat of a letdown when received, whereas transgressors don’t engage because they fear the act of apologising itself.”

In other research by De Cremer and colleagues, it was found that victims of a transgression particularly expect an apology when the perpetrator had the intention to breach trust, whereas perpetrators were only willing to apologise when they unintentionally breached the victim’s trust. There was therefore found to be a lack of harmonisation focused on repairing trust.

“This mis-coordination effect can thus thwart reconciliation, which is a very important process following a transgression, and has implications for management practices of restoring trust,” De Cremer said.

Further Information Links
Read “Forecasting Errors in the Averseness of Apologizing”, Social Justice Research, Jul 2014 

Read “How important is an apology to you? Forecasting errors in predicting the true value of apologies.” Psychological Science, Jan 2011

Read “The apology mismatch: asymmetries between victim’s need for apologies and perpetrator’s willingness to apologize”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, May 2013

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