The April 2006 issue of the Harvard Business Review included an article by Barbara Kellerman entitled, "When Should a Leader Apologize and When Not?" The article is full of insights and lessons learned about corporate, business and political apologies (or lack thereof) over the years.
Kellerman suggests the following for determining when a leader should apologize:
- When doing so is likely to serve an important purpose
- When the offense is of serious consequence
- When it's appropriate that the leader assume responsibility for the offense
- When no one else can get the job done
- When the cost of saying something is likely lower than the cost of staying silent
In the legal world, apologies, especially from law firm leaders, can be powerful - whether it's an apology to an associate or staff member for a misdirected comment or failure to provide instruction or support or to a client when something wasn't handled properly, etc. And failure to apologize or acknowledge a mistake can have pretty steep consequences - from low morale to employee attrition, loss of clients to malpractice suits or complaints to the grievance committee.
Some of the studies in Kellerman's article suggest that perhaps lawyers should consider counseling their clients that apologies can go a long way in avoiding or limiting litigation as well. She cites studies that indicate that full apologies by a defendant are more likely to result in quick settlement of lawsuits, and that failure to admit a mistake and apologize for it can be the real driving force behind a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Obviously, decisions like these need to be made on a case by case basis and leaders (and lawyers) need to consider the purpose for the apology, who would benefit, why and how it would make a difference, and whether or not that difference would be a positive one. Some apologies are more appropriately expressed in public, and some in private. Either way, Kellerman notes, "a perfect apology:
- Acknowledges the mistake or wrongdoing
- Accepts responsibility
- Expresses regret
- Provides assurance that the offense won't be repeated
- Is well timed.
But Kellerman also says that sometimes, a 'partial' apology (at least accepting responsibility or expressing regret) is better than no apology at all.
And of course, these guidelines for apologies apply to the world outside of business as well.