Study: Business people win when they apologize, take personal blame for mistakes


COLUMBUS, Ohio Supposedly, love means never having to say you're sorry but a new study suggests that attitude won't fly in the business world.

Researchers found that people who are wronged in a business transaction may be more likely to say they would reconcile if the offender offers a sincere apology particularly if the offender takes personal blame for the misdeed.

While it seems common sense that apologies would help smooth a bruised business relationship, such messages of regret are not common enough, said Roy Lewicki, co-author of the study and professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.

"We read in the news all the time stories about CEOs and other leaders who refuse to take responsibility for their actions and refuse to apologize for their offenses," Lewicki said.

"But our research suggests a willingness to take blame and offer amends can have a positive effect, and may be necessary to help repair a loss of trust in a business relationship."

Lewicki conducted the study with Edward Tomlinson, a doctoral student at Ohio State's Fisher College, and Brian Dineen, a Fisher College graduate who is now at the University of Kentucky. Their results were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Management.

The study involved 45 graduate-level business students who took part in a survey. Nearly all the students had real-world business experience: the average amount of business experience was six years, and about half were working full-time while enrolled in an evening MBA program.

The subjects read a story in which they were put in the role of running a small printing company that was fulfilling an order for a client. At the last minute, the client drastically reduced the order, meaning the subjects lost revenue. After reading the basic story, the subjects were shown 48 possible scenarios involving how the situation unfolded, including different combinations of apologies vs. no apologies from the offending client, sincere vs. non-sincere statements, large losses of revenue vs. small losses, and so on.

The subjects were asked, after each scenario, to rate how likely they would be to continue the business relationship with the offending client, how willing they would be to allow the client to reconcile, and how difficult it would be to rebuild the relationship.

The results showed that the victims were much more willing to consider reconciliation when the client offered an explicit apology rather than simply an attempt to placate the victim. Moreover, apologies were most effective when the client took personal blame for the situation rather than blaming outside forces.

"Any kind of apology is better than none," Lewicki said, "but we found victims appreciated it when the offender took full responsibility for their actions instead of shifting culpability elsewhere."

While the study shows the benefits of accepting responsibility for a misdeed, that doesn't mean it is easy to do, Tomlinson said.

"There's a tension when you have hurt someone in a business relationship," he said. "We know that giving an apology and taking blame may help the victim. But when you take blame, you're handing control of the situation to the victim they can decide whether to forgive you or not."

Sincerity was the most important factor in helping repair damage to the business relationship, according to the findings. Reconciliation is more likely when victims believe an offender is sincerely sorry and is taking quick action to remedy the problem. The study doesn't show how to determine whether an apology is sincere, but the important factor is whether the victim believes the apology is sincere, Tomlinson said.

Also, not surprisingly, it is harder to rebuild a business relationship when there has been a severe violation of trust compared to a smaller one. A severe violation in this case, when the victim in the story lost a large amount of money means that the victim is more likely to consider the nature of the past relationship with the offender when deciding whether to allow reconciliation. The victim considers whether the offender has been truthful in the past, and weighs whether he or she is likely to avoid the mistake in the future.

In fact, the study found that the nature of the past business relationship is every bit as important when rebuilding trust as are the steps that the offender takes to repair the current damage.

"Long before any violation arises, business people need to be laying the groundwork for a good, healthy relationship," Tomlinson said. "A good previous relationship can do as much to help repair damage from a failed business deal as any apology."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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