Friday, June 10, 2011

I’m Sorry: Now Was That So Hard?

Apologies are in the air. The Japanese government apologized for radioactive contamination at the Fukushima nuclear plant; Google apologized for potential privacy violations in its Buzz social networking service; the CEO at Renault apologized for falsely accusing three top managers of espionage; the archdiocese of Philadelphia apologized for the sexual abuse of children by the church's clergymen and teachers; Newt Gingrich apologized to the Republican party for his remarks on Medicare reform; Arnold Schwarzenegger apologized for fathering, and hiding news of, an illegitimate son; actor Charlie Sheen apologized to his television co-star for calling him a "troll." The list goes on.

Apologies, however, are not always so forthcoming.

In a recent op-ed piece about the medical profession, Arthur L. Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests that the state pass a law encouraging doctors, nurses, technicians, administrators and other care providers to apologize to their patients when they make mistakes during treatment.

As it is now, he says, lawyers and insurers typically advise health care professionals to "deny and defend" in order to avoid costly litigation and higher insurance premiums.

What about in the corporate world? Are apologies avoided like the plague, or are they seen as positive steps toward reconciliation? According to Wharton professor of operations and information management Maurice Schweitzer, apologies "tend to threaten a loss of power," and he cites recent research suggesting that when people do not apologize, they in fact are "perceived to be more powerful." Schweitzer's view is that people are afraid to apologize for two reasons: "One is loss of status. The other is that apologizing makes you more vulnerable."

And yet apologies are "incredibly powerful in terms of rebuilding a relationship," Schweitzer says. They help people "move beyond an error. They restore a sense of rapport" among the parties involved.

In an earlier Knowledge@Wharton article, Schweitzer described the two key elements for an apology: "that it should be perceived as sincere and that it should be substantial. In other words, it should be accompanied by penance." Apologies that aren't considered sincere are "referred to as 'cheap talk,'" he said, adding that in the business world, the way in which apologies are made has a lot to do with how they are perceived. Customers know that full-page ads taken out by a company as a form of apology are expensive, and therefore they are seen as both sincere and substantial. "This is different than an apology from an airline clerk to a customer whose flight has just been cancelled."

Referring to Caplan's op-ed piece, Schweitzer suggests that doctors have it harder than CEOs or other top executives when it comes to apologizing because they are directly responsible for "outcomes that end badly on such a frequent basis." The work of managers, on the other hand, "is more difficult to assess, and it doesn't have as many identifiable distinct episodes." Surgeons perform hundreds of operations a year; even if the error rate is extremely low, it will be obvious when a mistake is made. "But most managers are making decisions that aren't as public," Schweitzer says. "And they are much more interdependent on what else is happening within an organization. Managers are not held directly responsible, so the failure is difficult to pin on any one person."

Both Caplan and Schweitzer encourage people to admit their mistakes and apologize for them. In many states, Caplan writes, legislation already exists that "shields apologies from admission as evidence in malpractice suits." The legislation, he adds, does not diminish patients' rights in any way, but it does "a great deal to encourage the words that can help both patients and [their caretakers] deal with the cost of mistakes: 'I'm sorry.'"

So here goes. We're sorry if you don't like this blog.

Thanks to Maurice E. Schweitzer / The Knowledge@Wharton Network


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