I was recently sent an article about the effect of apology by a journalist from the BBC which was interesting. The failure to make an apology has as serious consequences as making one does. For example, a bad, or delayed or non apology can cause a great deal of harm. I think the biggest violators of basic correct apology are politicians and corporations. After all, their attitude is “being powerful means never saying you are sorry” and many operate on the proposition don’t ask permission, just do it.
For the U.S. the classical illustration of how not to make a corporate apology was Tony Hayward’s apology for the BP golf spill which to this day is an underlying reason why there is continued resentment and distrust of BP plus ongoing litigation.
The psychology involved is very interesting. See recent NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/style/i-cant-apologize-sorry.html In my trials I have capitalized on the corporate reluctance to apologize. It is human nature to not want to say you are sorry and in legal settings seen as inadvisable by many lawyers. Here are some thoughts about apologies:
Benefit of Apology
Dr. Jennifer Robbennolt, a University of Illinois law professor has written an article Apologies and Medical Error www.ncbi.nim.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2628492/ Some 550 people were surveyed about their reaction to apologies offered during settlement negotiations in a hypothetical injury case study. Her findings suggest apologies can actually play a positive role in settling legal cases. The studies showed that statements acknowledging an error and the consequences, while communicating regret for having caused the harm can decrease blame, anger, and decrease the risk of litigation.
The article cites another study where patients were asked to evaluate a number of scenarios describing medical errors from the perspective of the injured patient. 98% indicated that they expected a physician’s acknowledgment of the error. In another study 88% of the people wanted the doctor to tell them that they were sincerely sorry for what happened. Focus groups have indicated similar preferences.
Robbennolt’s studies indicate that patients who file lawsuits are motivated to find out what happened and to prevent future injury. In another study surveying medical malpractice claim to determine the motive for filing a malpractice case 90% indicated they wanted to prevent the same thing from happening to somebody else and to receive an explanation for what happened. Yet in a study of physicians about disclosure of problems to patients, 57% referred to the event as a “complication” or “problem” Fewer than half of the surgeons offered some expression of apology or regret and only 8% assured the patient the error would be
The reluctance to apologize is largely based upon the fear of risk of litigation. However Robbennolt indicates that empirical research has demonstrated that most injured patients do not file lawsuits and that physicians substantially over estimate the risk of being sued. Further apologies tend to diminish blame and make patients less likely to sue.
Studies have shown not any statement will suffice as an effective apology. In an article 8 essentials of an effective apology www.leadingwithtrust.com/2014/03/02//8-essentials– of–an–effective-apology/ The article suggested that there are eight essential elements of an effective apology
Accept responsibility for your actions.
- Pick the right time to apologize
- Say “I’m sorry,” not “I apologize”
- Be sincere and express empathy for how you hurt the other person
- Don’t use conditional language
- Don’t offer excuses or explanations
- Listen figure 8 commit to not repeating the behavior.
As of January 2009 apology laws had been enacted in 36 states. (Does Sorry work? (Benjamin Ho Cornell University and Elaine Liu University of Houston abstract October 2010) their paper concluded that “we find that in the short run the law increases the number of resolved cases while decreasing the average settlement payment for cases with more significant and permanent injuries. Our findings suggest that apology laws reduce the amount of time it takes to reach a settlement in what would normally be protracted lawsuits, leading to more resolve cases in the short run. In the long run, the evidence suggests there could be fewer cases over all.”
Washington has adopted a statute, RCW 5.64.010 which makes apologies and conciliatory efforts in a malpractice case made within 30 days of the event inadmissible as evidence in a later malpractice trial.