You Screwed Up; Now What?


This morning, I received this email from a doctor’s billing office:  “Dear ANN, We’ve screwed up.  And, for any inconvenience we’ve caused, we’re VERY sorry.  We’re doing everything in our power to inform you of the issue and whether it applies to you…” 

 My first thought was, “Now THAT’S refreshing!”  When was the last time you experienced that kind of up-front honesty from a provider or vendor (or political candidate)?  When were you last totally transparent with your client, colleague, or spouse about a screw-up?  When did you last hear, “I’m sorry?” and not, “I apologize if that bothered you,” or “We recognize we made an error.”  We know that failure is human, yet we struggle with taking active ownership of our mistakes.  Why?  Because, as research shows, there may be some real benefits to it:

  • On an individual level, there also may be benefits to not apologizing: some several studies showed that those who refuse to apologize experience greater power and higher levels of self-esteem.[i] Saying “I’m sorry” may rob us of power or denigrate our status.
  • Further, as the authors of the Oz Principle[ii] point out, taking accountability in our culture is quickly associated with guilt and shame, and can make some people feel vulnerable. As one corporate leader quipped on a social media feed, “I never apologise in the business world – if you let them see a weakness like that, you’re done for.”
  • In a litigious society, such ownership might have disastrous legal consequences. As a result, we have come to expect corporate Boards and leaders to deny or downplay their involvement in problems, e.g., “Mistakes were made.”

Yet substantial research highlights the benefits of a sincere, well-placed apology:

  • In a 2014 study,[iii] researchers found followers who believed leader apologies were sincere reported “greater trust in leadership, satisfaction with supervision, leader-member exchange quality, affective organizational commitment, and forgiveness than those reporting insincere or no apologies.”  In other words, followers felt more positively about leaders who apologized – but only when they thought the apology was genuine.
  • Similarly, another study[iv] found that apologies in personal relationships were more accepted, and forgiveness more willing to be given, when the transgressed person felt highly satisfied with the relationship in general.
  • Bevens et al. (2015) found, “There is evidence that apology from an offender influences the victim at the affective, cognitive, and behavioral levels.”[v] In other words, people receiving an apology tend to think, feel, and interact with apology-givers more favorably than non-apologizers.
  • Legal research argues that apologizing can be of benefit in private negotiations and their outcomes – but once again, the apologies must not be insincere.[vi]
  • Going back to my own experience, I felt quite positively about the note from the doctor’s office, probably because I already have a good relationship with the people there. Even the front desk staff take a genuine interest in me, following up on previous conversations, getting to know me personally, etc.  I already feel this whole office cares about me.  If I felt they treated me like a number, I wonder how I would have experienced this apology?

So, is it better to apologize for screwing up, or not?  It depends on your goals and your relationships.  Do you want to feel great about yourself, regardless of how others might perceive you?  Do you need a strong power position in this situation?  Then maybe you don’t apologize.   On the other hand, is your goal to bolster good relationships with those who have been offended?  In these situations, a sincere apology is probably the best course of action.  To make the best of your screw-up:

  • Start with an existing positive relationship. The willingness of others to forgive your error starts way before it happens.  Build relationship traction by spending time with individuals, getting to know them personally, and sharing your human side.  The more relationship deposits you put in the bank, the less likely you are to be overdrawn when you have to make a withdrawal, which a screw-up can definitely do.
  • Acknowledge it ASAP. Waiting only weakens resolve and may build resentment from others.
  • Make amends. Apologies are meaningless if there’s not a commitment to doing something differently.  Let your brain problem-solve as it intends.
  • Be genuine. Your apology is not sincere if it includes ifs (e.g., if you were offended, I’m sorry), reflects sarcasm, shares blame, or minimizes the error.  If you can’t muster it without those components, wait until you can.
  • Make it personal. Where possible, apologize to each person that might have been affected by your mess-up.  It gives them a chance to hear your sincerity and to offer you their forgiveness.  This may be just a powerful as the apology itself.

To err may be human, but to apologize is to reflect true personal and relationship leadership.  Think carefully about when, how, and why you offer it – or don’t bother.

[i] Okimoto, T., Wenzel, M., & Hedric, K. (2013).  Refusing to apologize can have psychological benefits (and we issue no mea culpa for this research finding).  European Journal of Social Psychology, 43, (1), 22–31.

[ii] Connors, R., Smith, T., & Hickman, C. (1994).  The Oz Principle.  London:  Penguin Books.

[iii] Basford, T.E., Offermann, L.R., & Behrend, T.S. (2014).  Please Accept My Sincere Apologies: Examining Follower Reactions to Leader Apology.  Journal of Business Ethics, 119 (1), 99-117.

[iv] Schumann, K (2012).  Does love mean never having to say you’re sorry?  Associations between relationship satisfaction, perceived apology sincerity, and forgiveness.  Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29 (7), 997-1010.

[v] Beyens, U., Yu, H, Han, T., Zhang, L., & Zhou, X. (2015)   The strength of a remorseful heart: psychological and neural basis of how apology emolliates reactive aggression and promotes forgiveness.  Frontiers in Psychology, (6), 1611.

[vi] Lavens, P. (2011).  Negotiation and Apologies: The Role of an Apology, the Role of the Law, and the Role of the Lawyer.  Bond University Faculty of Law.