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The Power of an Apology

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I am a risk management professional, a ski patroller, and a wilderness medical / mental health first aid instructor - so a lot of my life is spent teaching and practicing how to respond to emergencies and incidents. I heard a Freakonomics podcast a few months ago called How to Optimize Your Apology (originally aired October 2018) and have been thinking about it and how it applies to first responders. I've been involved in managing upwards of 10 fatalities and have seen first hand how the way that an organization reacts and responds to the victims/family can have a direct correlation to a settlement/lawsuit.

The podcast starts out with an example that doctors worry about whether they should apologize after a mistake is made for fear of a lawsuit, despite evidence showing that a doctor is less likely to get sued if they do apologize. There is this vicious cycle, where doctors are afraid to apologize but the only reason patients or families sue is because they never got an apology. Several states started to pass “I’m sorry” laws that say that if a doctor apologizes to a patient, that apology can’t be used in court against them.

Economists Ben Ho and Elaine Lu decided to study how much an apology was worth:

  • They found that states that passed the "I'm Sorry" law saw the speed of settlements increase by around 20%;

  • The dollar amount of the Settlements decreased by $20,000 for moderate injuries and $50-$60,000 for major injuries like quadriplegia and death.

Simply showing remorse, compassion and/or empathy we can potentially change the outcome of a bad situation.

The central premise of the podcast is that you should think of an apology as an investment. Some may wonder, if I’m never going to see this person again, then why should I go out of the way to restore this relationship? But if this is the beginning of a long relationship, then it does make sense to bring the relationship back into line. Think of it as an investment (in the outdoor education space, with the families of our students, and others that have been affected by the incident - whom we refer to as secondary victims).

A few sociologists decided to analyze the effectiveness of apologies made by prominent people or organizations. They looked at the format and content of these apologies. What you say first and last is the most important as to whether people forgive you or not. The very first thing you say is priming the audience and framing what you’re about to say. The most successful apologies focus on the victim, not the apologist. Talk very little about yourself or the justification of your actions, and end your apology by talking about how sorry you are and showing remorse.

Researchers were surprised at how few people can make an effective apology. Less than 1/3 were effective because people typically talk about themselves first, and offender driven apologies are the least effective.

There was a psychological experiment that involved Bill Clinton apologizing (for the Lewinsky scandal): in one video he looks really angry and, in the other he looks apologetic. The people that saw the apologetic Clinton, the apology worked, they liked him more. But the people that saw the angry Clinton respected him more. There is a tradeoff between being liked and being respected. When we are serving in our roles as administrative staff and are on display as role models for our greener colleagues, it is important that we consider the long term economic, social, and reputational repercussions of being liked over being respected. The other major cost of an apology is that it can make you look incompetent. At first glance, there may be a built-in disincentive to apologize but the research shows otherwise.

Four things to remember about how to give a successful apology:

1. The apology needs to occur directly after the event - don't wait.

2. Don’t apologize for what people thought, apologize for what you did.

3. Third, don’t give context.

4. Use the following formula: Identify the victim, express remorse, make restitution.

On a note related to #4 above, workplace safety expert and author Sidney Dekker says that when someone has been injured in a workplace setting, there are three questions we should ask:

  • Who has been hurt?

  • What do they need?

  • Whose job is it to provide what they need?

Uber also did a large study with their customers who had experienced a bad ride, whether that was a delay in timing, pick up, etc. and found:

  • An apology alone is not a panacea;

  • That the victim understands that there was a true cost to that apology (cost being either true dollar amount or if you show some empathy or embarrassment it’s a reputational cost.)

  • If you’re going to apologize, be sincere and use them with discretion

  • And finally, if you overuse apologies, they can actually backfire, and they can be worse rather than better.

I think all of these findings can be applied in the situation where you really did make a mistake and need to apologize, but that we can use this research to realize how a bit of empathy and compassion for our patients can help us build stronger relationships with them -- and depending on the context of the injury, can help prevent more serious repercussions.

Additional reading:

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