Some researchers have found that the most effective type of apology depends on the nature of the mistake made.
In a study by Peter Kim of the University of Southern California, Cecily Cooper of the University of Miami, Kurt Dirks of Washington University, and Donald Ferrin of Singapore Management University, participants assumed the role of a manager responsible for hiring a senior level tax accountant. The participants watched one of four videotaped interviews of a hypothetical job candidate. During each video, the interviewer mentioned that the candidate’s previous employer had accused her of filing a tax return that understated the client’s capital-gains income. In one version of the video, the interviewer suggested that the candidate incorrectly filed the tax return because she is incompetent – she didn’t understand the mistake she made. In another version, he accused her of deliberately underreporting the earnings.
The candidate apologized to the interviewer in both cases. In some instances, she blamed only herself for the mistake; in other instances, she partially blamed herself and partially blamed her managers (When accused of being incompetent, she claimed her managers hadn’t instructed her properly; when accused of lacking integrity, she said her managers had pressured her to misreport earnings).
The results are intriguing. When the candidate was accused of incompetence, participants were more likely to trust her when she accepted sole responsibility (for more information on accepting responsibility and the effect of apologies on negotiations, see Why Your Lawyer Could Be Wrong About Apologies). But when the candidate was accused of low integrity, participants were more likely to trust her when she provided an external explanation for her actions.
It seems that unethical behavior can be so damaging that even a partial apology of questionable merit can help restore trust. It’s also worth noting that internally motivated apologies may be the most effective when the harm caused was unintentional.
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Related Article: Put Apologies in Your Toolbox