Don't Apologize: Expressing Regret, Reconsidered
There’s so much to be sorry about at work. We’re sorry we missed that meeting, we’re sorry for our long e-mails, we’re sorry we hogged the printer. It’s entirely possible to spend a good part of a workday apologizing for picayune offenses. I know. I’d gotten so good at expressing my plentiful regret that, to save time, I’d developed uglier and uglier shorthand. “I’m sorry” led to “sorry.” “Apologies” begat “apols,” as well as the cringe-worthy e-mail sign-off, “many apols.”
So I started an experiment. For two weeks I didn’t apologize to any of my colleagues, in writing or in person, for anything—and this part is important—even if I was wrong.
A 2012 study by a trio of Australian scholars, Refusing to Apologize Can Have Psychological Benefits (and We Issue No Mea Culpa for This Research Finding), helps explain why, after a few days, I felt fantastic. In academic terms, apologies act as a transfer of power from the offender to the victim. By refusing to apologize, the researchers say, the harm-doer—the technical term for “jerk”—retains a sense of control and power. Neglecting to apologize means we don’t have to admit we’ve done anything wrong. From there it’s a short hop to believing the transgression wasn’t so bad, which means we don’t have to do anything different to avoid doing it again. As I recently heard a mother tell her 8-year-old, “If you were really sorry for throwing your hat, you wouldn’t have done it a third time.”
Usually the psychological rewards for the jerks don’t justify the cost. Expressing regret can go a long way toward righting legitimate wrongs and, from a corporate view, save a lot of money. It’s been almost two decades since The Lancet published research showing that among patients who’d filed medical malpractice suits, 16 percent said an apology from the hospital would have sufficed. In 2002 the University of Michigan Medical Center adopted a policy of “full disclosure for medical errors,” including an apology; its rate of lawsuits has since dropped 65 percent.
There are professional benefits to taking the blame, too. “When someone accepts responsibility, they’re basically saying, ‘I’m in charge,’ ” says Adam Galinsky, a Columbia Business School professor who studies negotiation and power. “And when they promise to fix it, they’re saying, ‘I’m capable.’ ” In a 2004 study of chief executive officers and stock performance, researchers from the University of Michigan and Stanford University found that executives who took responsibility for poor outcomes saw their companies’ stocks rise between 14 percent and 19 percent the following year.
Still, plenty of people don’t express their regrets freely. And that miserly attitude toward apologies helps make them valuable. Because some people don’t apologize often, when they do we notice—and often think better of them.
Which brings me back to my two-week nonapology binge. I realized the more times you say you’re sorry, the less it means; the less meaningful, the easier it is to say. And those minor transgressions often matter much more to the transgressor than to the transgressee. All those “my bad” e-mails? They do nothing more than annoy the person at the other end. Hard truth: There’s a good chance no one missed you at the meeting or noticed your proposal was a few hours late. If that’s not the case, they’ll let you know. During my experiment, only one person asked me for an apology; funnily, it was for something I truly didn’t think I’d done wrong. So I split the difference. “I understand,” I said. “Many apols.”