Apologies at the Bargaining Table

Most of us have had the experience of delivering an apology that fell on deaf ears. When apologies fail to achieve their aims, poor delivery is usually to blame. The importance of sincerity in such a situation cannot be overstated, because if the recipient thinks your apology is less than sincere, she is unlikely to forgive you. Such is the power of sincerity in both negotiation and dispute resolution, as this case study involving a bakery in the Philippines and its labor union demonstrates:

Negotiation Case Study: The Philippines’ Golden Donut, Inc.

The Philippines-based Golden Donut chain faced difficult negotiations with its labor union. When the management’s negotiating team showed up 35 minutes late to the talks, the union’s team stormed out in protest. In an attempt to resume the process, the management team sent the union negotiators a letter that included an apology. Perceiving the apology to be insufficient, the union refused to reconvene and ultimately went on strike.


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.

When it comes time to make an apology, how can you convey your sincerity? By delivering the apology in person, expressing it with emotion, and conveying a sense of personal responsibility and remorse. In one study, Edward Tomlinson of John Carroll University and Roy Lewicki of Ohio State University found that participants viewed apologies to be more sincere when they included internal attributions for the harm (for example, “It was my fault”) than when the apologies included external attributions (“Market conditions were poor”).

The ability to make a sincere apology also significantly rests on your credibility. In the study, a history of unfulfilled promises—as when the individual who committed a trust violation had issued a deceptive message earlier in the experiment—worked against negotiators. Therefore, don’t give assurances or make promises during a negotiation unless you’re certain you can follow through on them.

(See also: Team building, interpersonal relationships)

Professional negotiators typically try to advance their case by making persuasive arguments, listening closely to the other side, and inventing creative options. Sometimes, however, your most effective move can be a straightforward, heartfelt admission that you made a mistake.

Related Conflict Resolution Posts:
Negotiation and Nonviolent Action: Interacting in the World of Conflict – How do integrative negotiation principles inform nonviolent action?
How to Say “I’m sorry” – Apologies are some of the more difficult statements negotiators may have to make at the bargaining table or elsewhere but they can be extremely effective in reconciling differences and creating value between counterparts. Learn about the power of an apology at the bargaining table in this negotiation case study drawn from negotiation research.
Dealmaking: 5 Tips for Closing the Deal – Here are five negotiation skills tips to help negotiators secure the deal in their next dealmaking negotiation.
Dealmaking: Top Ten Business Deals of 2013 – The Program on Negotiation compiled list of the ten most influential business negotiations of 2013.
These Examples Illustrate the Importance of Negotiation in Business – Why is negotiation important in business, at the bargaining table and beyond? How can integrative negotiation principles help business negotiators secure win-win negotiated agreements, build relationships, and resolve conflicts? In this article the effective power of negotiation dynamics in commercial transactions is discussed with reference to the relationship building potential of integrative negotiation skills.


In our FREE special report from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School – The New Conflict Management: Effective Conflict Resolution Strategies to Avoid Litigation – renowned negotiation experts uncover unconventional approaches to conflict management that can turn adversaries into partners.

Originally posted in 2012.