Research on Apologies Garners National Attention

Published on April 21, 2016

Whether at home or in the workplace or public square, the fate of relationships often hangs on two simple words.

But what do we really understand about “I’m sorry,” and what constitutes a “good” apology or “bad” apology?

That’s what an Eastern Kentucky University professor and two other researchers set out to discover in “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies,” to be published in the May 2016 issue of the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research. (To see abstract, visit Dr. Beth Polin, assistant professor of management at EKU, was joined in the research by lead author Dr. Roy Lewicki and Dr. Robert Lount, both faculty members at The Ohio State University, where Polin was a doctoral student when the study began.

The study has garnered considerable national attention in recent days, earning mention via The Today Show, Psychology Today, The Huffington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Smart Business, The Science Explorer, CBS News, ABC Radio and Teen Vogue, among others.

Interest is high for good reason.

“This topic is relevant to every employee, workgroup and industry,” Polin said. “The applications of conflict management and trust repair after trust violations are vast. Unfortunately, conflict is common in the professional world, whether we see it in companies (the Volkswagen emissions scandal, BP oil spill, etc.), sports figures (think Deflategate) or politics (Eliot Spitzer and the like). Understanding how to manage conflict and repair trust and work toward more effective and efficient working relationships is paramount in a professional setting.”

Although considerable research in the management field is focused on conflict management, trust violations and repair, it “does not differentiate well between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ apology,” Polin said. “We thought that a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ apology would have quite different effects on trust repair.”

Of course, an apology can mean anything from a simple “I’m sorry” to a long, well-thought-out statement. But how do you define a “good” apology? And what differentiates a “good” apology from a “not-so-good” apology?

“We looked to apply some validity to the term,” said Polin, who was involved in every stage of the work, from idea generation to literature review to method design/collection and data analysis to writing the final publication.

At EKU, most of Polin’s classes at the undergraduate and graduate level center on topics related to organizational behavior. One entire course is designed around navigating organizational conflict.

“Understanding conflict management is critical to any student as they prepare to be a contributing member of a company,” Polin said. “Unfortunately, trust violations will occur whether we mean for them to or not. Perception rules the workplace, so students must learn how to manage the perception that others have of them. Part of this is learning how to manage conflict in which they are involved, promoting healthy conflict and debate that moves companies and ideas forward.”

So what did her research determine were the ingredients of a “good” apology?

“Our data showed that the acknowledgement of responsibility along with a declaration of repentance and offer of repair to be the most critical components of an apology. The component found to be the least critical across all studies was the request for forgiveness.”

Polin, who joined the EKU faculty in 2013, was awarded a Critical Thinking Teacher of the Year Award in 2015.

“Critical thinking is arguably the most important skill students need to enter the workforce,” she said. “We live in a knowledge economy, and students will not gain a reputation in their workplace as effective and creative problem solvers and managers by being good at ‘Googling’ answers. They must be able to identify problems and efficiently integrate knowledge and experience to find and implement effective solutions. I push these concepts and work to build these skills in my students.”

And she’s not apologizing for that.