Friday, June 18, 2010

When do Apologies Work?

Lots of mediators have talked about the power of an apology to assist in resolving disputes, and in allowing people to get along with one another. (examples here, here, here, and here)  An apology can serve the highest purposes of mediation, in permitting reconciliation and allowing people to get beyond the dispute.  From a more cynical point of view, an apology can also save a wrongdoer money, as long as the apology is not used as an admission of liability.  Therefore, no one involved in a dispute should be too quick to dismiss the possible effectiveness of an apology.  To be effective, however, an apology should be sincere, it should be coupled with some concrete action, and it must be accepted. 

This week we saw some interesting public apologies in relation to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  First there was Congressman Joe Barton's public apology to BP'S CEO Tony Hayward, which was deemed so politically damaging that Barton was forced to apologize for his apology.  This could be seen as an apology that was so out of tune with what the public viewed as appropriate that it turned out to be counter-productive.

Then there was Chairman Svanberg's apology after meeting with the president.  BP has made efforts to apologize before, but these were  sometimes questioned, because they were coupled with refusals to accept blame until an investigation was completed, and because people may have doubted BP's willingness to do what is necessary to remedy the disaster.  Svanberg also made an unfortunate remark, which could have resulted from English not being his first language, about his concern for the "small people."  So he was forced to apologize again for his earlier clumsy apology.  But coupled with an agreement to put $20 billion in escrow to pay claims resulting from the Gulf Oil spill (THAT'S TWENTY BILLION DOLLARS!!!), BP's latest expressions of  contrition for the company's conduct might finally be given some weight.  Apologies, when done correctly, do have an impact.  Money talks also.

(Doug Mills/New York Times photo)

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