The key to the perfect apology has been discovered by scientists

Accepting responsibility for your mistake and offering to fix things are the two most important components of any apology

Doug Bolton@DougieBolton
Wednesday 13 April 2016 18:00
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The research will help managers defuse situations in the workplace
The research will help managers defuse situations in the workplace

A team of American scientists claim to have discovered the key elements of a perfect apology.

There are six main pillars to the art of saying sorry, they say - but if your apology needs to be quick, you can focus on just two.

The research has come out of the Fisher College of Business at Ohio State University, where researchers have tested hundreds of participants to see how sticky situations can best be defused in the workplace.

According to Roy Lewicki, a professor at the school and lead author of the study: "Apologies really do work, but you should make sure you hit as many of the six key components as possible."

These main components are:

  • Expression of regret
  • Explanation of what went wrong
  • Acknowledgement of responsibility
  • Declaration of repentance
  • Offer of repair
  • Request for forgiveness

Emphasising only two of these points can also contribute to a good apology, however.

Lewicki said: "Our findings showed that the most important component is an acknowledgement of responsibility. Say it is your fault, that you made a mistake."

Offering to mend the situation is the second-most important part.

"One concern about apologies is that talk is cheap. But by saying 'I'll fix what is wrong,' you're committing to take action to undo the damage," Lewicki explained.

Expression of regret, explanation of what went wrong and declaration of repentance are all tied as the third-most important parts, while a request for forgiveness is at the bottom.

The study, published in the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, took the form of two experiments - in the first, 333 adult participants were invited to imagine themselves as the manager of an accounting company which was hiring a new employee. At a previous job, this employee had filed an incorrect tax return for a client. When challenged about their mistake, the employee apologised.

These participants were not shown the actual apology, but were told it contained one, three or all of the apology components, and were asked to rate its effectiveness on a scale of one to five based only on these factors.

The second experiment involved 422 participants, who got the same scenario but were given an actual written apology, without being told how many elements it contained. They were also asked to rate how good the apology was on the same scale.

While the outcomes of these two tests were not identical, they were similar enough for the researchers to draw an important conclusion - the more of the components were present, the better the apology.

Lewicki acknowledges that the study has its limitations. Even in the second experiment, the participants could only read written apologies, rather than hearing them from a real person.

"Clearly, things like eye contact and appropriate expression of sincerity are important when you give a face-to-face apology," he said.

So, next time you screw up at work, make sure to show you regret it, explain your mistake, accept the error, demonstrate that you're sorry, try to fix things and ask for forgiveness. Science says you'll get away with it.

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