Advice for atonement

5th February 2016 at 00:00

Saying sorry is difficult. It’s not just that it requires the courage to admit fault, it also requires a deep understanding of the limits of personal and group responsibility. What’s more, the actual process of making the apology is littered with tripping points.

So making an apology is not something to be scoffed at by any organisation. And the stakes are high. Get it wrong, and its executor can make situations worse than they already are, compounding adverse and potentially damaging consequences. Conversely, get an apology right and this can not only smooth the original problem but also generate long-term benefits via enhanced reputation and trust.

Much of getting it right is about understanding the broader context of an apology, as well as how the recipients of an apology are likely to react. We can consider some general points, although this is not to say that there is any one-sizefits-all approach to be followed.

First, it is important for organisational leaders to decide whether or not an apology is warranted. This requires gauging the expectations that multiple stakeholders have concerning the extent of responsibility. And, given that schools nowadays have an expanding family of stakeholders and growing direct responsibilities, it is becoming ever-more important for school heads to see their problems and issues through a variety of lenses.

The second consideration is timing. All things being equal, most people prefer to defer an apology. They may be reluctant to hint at liability and guilt, or worried about future litigation, a loss of face or a perceived drop in power and status.

But in the present day, hoping issues will blow over is extremely risky. The costs of not making a generally expected apology, or making an apology which is poorly received, are potentially huge. Ineffective apologies (or no apology) can seriously damage stakeholder relationships and nowadays, via social media, such damage can occur very quickly.

Recent research (bit.ly/ApologyHBR) has suggested that apologies must be prompt; made by an appropriately senior person; targeted at the relevant stakeholders; clearly express candour and remorse; and include a clear commitment to change.

If I was a headteacher today, I would take the last finding in particular to heart. Most, if not all apologies should be accompanied by a commitment to change, whereby new behaviours will be put into place to try and avert any recurrence of the contentious issue repeating itself.

Beyond this advice, however, headteachers are largely on their own: there is no generic formula for guaranteed success – every case for an apology (or not) should be considered in its own context. Unfortunately, when all things are weighed, to say sorry or not may come down to a decision that owes much to the experience and gut feeling of the person making it.

John Burns is professor of management and accountancy at the University of Exeter Business School

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