Look Like You Mean It and Other Research On How To Apologize! … Two Recent Studies Tell What I
In this political year, we have an excellent opportunity to watch public figures as they move through high roads, low blows and the need to apologize – all priceless lessons for corporate PR and marketing professionals.
What to never do? No smiling, no laughing and never a joke What works? Looking sad, sounding like you mean it.
“Straight up, we made some mistakes,” Whole Foods co-CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb said earlier this year in response to an overcharging scandal.
“We weren’t prepared for the crisis and we dropped the ball,” wrote AirBnB CEO Brian Chesky in 2011, after a guest trashed a host’s home.
“This should never have happened. It is simply unacceptable,” said Mary Barra, CEO of GM, in one of several public apologies in the wake of safety scandals at the automaker.
The corporate apology, once a relative rarity, has become a normal part of business discourse. Stuff happens, and then we say we’re sorry for it. But just because corporate apologies have become commonplace doesn’t mean they’re all created equal.
First, Leanne ten Brinke of the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and Gabrielle S. Adams of the London Business School examine how expressions of emotion affect corporate apologies. Publishing in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, they present the findings of two studies.
In the first study, they looked at how investors reacted to real apologies from executives. They examined 29 online videos of apologies made between 2007 and 2011. Using an established system for distinguishing facial expressions (the Facial Action Coding System, or FACS), their researchers watched each video second by second, without sound, and tracked the expressions that flitted across the executives’ faces. Were they frowning? Smiling? Looking sad? Then Brinke and Adams looked at what happened after the apology to the company’s stock price. They found that for those leaders who had apologized with a smile, the stock dropped—perhaps because the leader seemed insincere delivering his apology, or even seemed to be enjoying the suffering his company had caused. The more the person smiled, the worse his company performed.
For the leaders who appeared genuinely contrite, at first it seemed like there was no impact on stock price—the company neither performed worse, nor performed better. “Normative emotions simply allow the company to move forward,” they write.
But then the researchers took a closer look at CEO apologies, specifically—16 out of the 29 cases. They found that when an apology was delivered by a CEO who looked sad, the company’s stock price actually rose post-apology. “A good apology can build investor confidence,” especially in the long term.
To investigate this further, Brinke and Adams conducted an experiment in which they hired an actor to portray an airline CEO apologizing for a computer malfunction that canceled 140 flights, stranding thousands of passengers—a scenario based on a real Alaksa Airlines snafu. They made sure his fictional apology contained all the verbal elements of a good apology—the components previous research has identified as being central to repairing relationships (see sidebar). They then recruited subjects to watch this fictional CEO apologize—either happily, sadly, or neutrally. When the CEO appeared sad, participants rated him as more sincere and were more likely to want to reconcile with him. When the CEO delivered his apology with a smile on his face—or, interestingly, a neutral expression—the study participants were less likely to trust him, and the apology even seemed to exacerbate their negative feelings.
The 5 Elements of a Complete Apology
An effective apology includes up to five elements, according to psychology researchers.
An explicit “I’m sorry.” Linguists call this an “Illocutionary Force Indicating Device.”
An offer of repair. This is where you offer to make it up to the person, eg, “I’m so sorry I spilled on your suit, can I pay for the dry cleaning?”
An explanation. Here’s where you explain how the mistake happened. But, it’s important to note that a complete apology also includes…
Taking responsibility. Without this, an explanation just sounds like an excuse.
A promise of forbearance, eg, “I promise it won’t happen again.”
Even seasoned leaders are likely to find delivering an apology to be an uncomfortable experience, and when we feel uncomfortable, a normal reaction is to grimace, laugh awkwardly, or even try to break the tension with a joke. Leaders (especially Americans) may also feel they can’t show too much sadness or anguish but instead must present a positive front at all times. The research by Brinke and Adams reminds us how these understandable impulses can backfire.
Another paper appearing in the Journal of Corporate Financeadds an interesting wrinkle to this subject. Researchers Don Chance, James Cicon, and Stephen P. Ferris examined 150 press releases from 1993 to 2009 to examine how companies fared when they blamed themselves for poor performance as opposed to blaming external factors. They found that while companies are twice as likely to blame external factors when things go wrong, passing the buck results in continued financial decline. Conversely, companies that take responsibility for their missed earnings stabilize and eventually see an uptick in financial performance. (Interestingly, both groups were about equally likely to fire their CEOs.)
Why? After eliminating numerous factors, the researchers conclude that being honest and specific about the source of the problem—both characteristics of self-blaming statements—not only cheers up investors, it likely helps the company turn around the issue more quickly. Conversely, the companies who blamed external factors were often vague (blaming “economic forces” for instance) and seen as less honest (since many of their wounds had actually been self-inflicted).
The message is loud and clear: when you mess up, admit it. And look appropriately sad about it.