Influencers from Around the World – Apologies: The Language of Losers or Leaders?

This month’s article is from Hoh Kim, CMCT. Hoh is one only 27 Cialdini Method Certified Trainers in the world. I wish you all had an opportunity to meet Hoh as I did when we got our CMCT designations together several years ago. He has a wonderful, warm, and engaging personality so I know you’d enjoy spending time with him. Being a native of South Korea he gives us a unique perspective on the differences and similarities between the Asian and American cultures when it comes to influence and persuasion. I know you’ll enjoy what he has to share this week.

Brian, CMCT
Helping You Learn to Hear “Yes”.
Apologies: The Language of Losers or Leaders?
One of Dr. Cialdini’s six principles of influence is authority which tells us people say “Yes” to people who have authority or expertise. That’s why people care about professional titles, academic degrees, and awards. But, this is not the whole story. According to Dr. Cialdini, to have authority, you need two things: expertise and trustworthiness. Most people know how to build expertise in their area with education, professional experiences, degrees, etc. But what about trustworthiness? Dr. Cialdini says one way it can be gained is by how you communicate your weaknesses, rather than strengths. Credible people share their weaknesses first before others and quite often competitors do. I’ve been helping corporate executives learn how to communicate in crisis situations such as product recalls, scandals, etc. In my field there’s a term know as the “paradox of transparency” and it perfectly aligns with Dr. Cialdini’s theory about authority. According to the paradox, when a company makes a mistake or wrongdoing, they have a tendency to behave in a “non-transparent” manner, such as keeping a silence or lie. However, these “non-transparent” approaches make their crisis situation worse, not better. So, they “add” more tags like “liar” or “not responsible” to an already bad situation. It is a paradox since transparency helps, not hurts, the wrongdoers. Crisis management is not about covering up what happened; rather it’s about what you do with what happened. People pay attention how you behave after you make a mistake. Since 2008, I’ve been studying public apologies of leaders in the PhD program at KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science & Technology), and recently, I published a book call Cool Apology (in Korean language) which was co-authored with my advisor, Dr. Jaeseung Jeong. While studying apologies I realized it is a language of authority and trustworthiness. Back in 2007, I met Doug Wojcieszak in St. Louis. He is the founder of Sorry Works! Coalition. They’ve been actively spreading a “disclosure” program, which applies apologies in managing medical malpractice. In the past, when there was a medical malpractice case, hospitals often took “deny and defend” approaches which usually ended up in painful lawsuits. Harvard, Stanford, the universities of Virginia and Michigan, and Johns Hopkins all took different approaches. They transparently investigated the incidents and if there were any mistakes they provide apologies to victims, or their family members, and compensated them fairly. The results? In the Michigan hospitals, where the disclosure program was introduced in 2001, claims and lawsuits numbered 262 in a single year. However, after six years the number had dropped significantly, to just 83! At the University of Illinois hospital there were 37 cases where medical doctors transparently disclosed their errors and apologized and only one patient filed a lawsuit. For a story on this click here. Apologies reduce lawsuits and even save money, but what about leadership? In 2006 Tucker et al., published a paper “apologies and transformational leadership” in the Journal of Business Ethics. They ran experiments to measure how people view their bosses’ leadership when the boss apologizes and when they don’t. They found that leaders who apologized when they made a mistake consistently got higher leadership scores. Right apologies strengthen your leadership. Now you might wonder how to best apologize. It will help you to know different languages of apologies. For further reading I recommend Five Languages of Apology by Gary Chapman. Let me briefly share with you the six languages:

  1. Regret – “I am sorry”
  2. Account – “I am sorry for being late”
  3. Responsibility – “It was my mistake”
  4. Repetition – “I wouldn’t do it again”
  5. Recovery – compensation or actions to recover
  6. Forgiveness – “Will you forgive me?”

You can choose different languages in different situations but try to include regret, account, and responsibility at a minimum when you want to apologize. If you have a boss and he or she makes a mistake with you what would you expect? “Ignore and deny” or “apologize and recover?” I think the answer is obvious. Apologies are the language of losers when leaders hide their mistakes, but now we live in the age of Twitter, the iPhone, and WikiLeaks. You no longer can hide your mistakes so it’s becoming critical to communicate your mistakes. Apology is becoming the language of leaders in the 21st century. Hoh Kim, CMCT

3 replies
  1. Orem Headache Clinic
    Orem Headache Clinic says:

    I've always thought an apology is very powerful. It's not the mistake a person makes, it's how the person responds to that mistake. Do they seek to hide it(See Jim Tressel) or do they take responsibility for it and seek to correct it?

  2. Victoria FERAUGE
    Victoria FERAUGE says:

    Very interesting article. Am wondering, however, about the impact of culture on the form of the apology. There is a very well-known phrase by a government official in France where she argued that, yes, she was "responsable mais pas coupable." (responsible for what happened but not guilty). This was interpreted more or less as an attempt at an apology by my French husband. As for me, I thought it was a flagrant attempt to evade apologizing or taking responsibility. Context may be everything….


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