Leading with Trust

Are Delayed Apologies More Effective in Rebuilding Trust?

Alben Barkley, Vice President to Harry Truman, said about political apologies, “If you have to eat crow, eat it while it’s hot.” Most of us would agree that when it comes to making an apology, it’s better to act quickly, say your mea-culpa, do what you can to repair the damage, and then put the issue behind you.

However, when it comes to rebuilding trust and confidence with those you’ve offended, the timing of your apology could make all the difference between restoration and healing or just adding insult to injury.

In his newest book, Wait – The Art and Science of Delay, author Frank Partnoy gives several examples from academic research and popular culture that illustrate the importance of discerning the right time to make an apology. It’s not a question of if you need to apologize, but when.

For example, if you bump into a person while standing in line, or spill a drink on someone at a cocktail party, it’s expected and appropriate to apologize immediately. The offense is accidental and impersonal, and to not apologize immediately would be rude and disrespectful. Yet when it comes to more personal and complex situations, an immediate apology may come across as lacking sincerity, thoughtfulness, or care.

Partnoy points out that there are two good reasons to delay your apology. The first is that a snap apology may prevent the offended party from fully expressing how he or she feels about the situation, particularly if it’s a serious, personal transgression. The person wronged needs time to process what happened, understand what the intentions may have been of the offender, and what the ramifications are for their relationship.

The second reason to consider delaying your apology is that letting some time elapse allows additional information or feelings to bubble to the surface. Time and space allows the offended party to fully process their thoughts and emotions, and allows for ongoing discussion that can provide helpful context for why things happened the way they did. Having a more complete understanding of the background behind a transgression can allow the offended to progress to an emotionally open place where they can fully receive the apology.

Research by Frantz and Bennigson concludes that victims feel more satisfied when apologies are delayed because it gives them a chance to express themselves and feel that their concerns have been heard. Their studies suggest that the relationship between timing and the effectiveness of apologies follows a natural distribution curve: effectiveness is low to begin with, rises as time elapses, and then reaches a point where too much elapsed time reduces the effectiveness of the apology.

So when is the right time to apologize? Well, like most complicated issues in life, the answer is “it depends.” Partnoy suggests that the next time you offend a close friend or family member, you might want to think about how they will respond to an immediate apology versus one that is delayed a bit. Will the apology be more effective if it’s delivered today or tomorrow? Tomorrow or next week? If letting some time pass will give the offended party time to understand the full context of the situation and express their feelings, then chances are a delayed apology will be more effective than an immediate one.

If you’ve really screwed up, you’ll probably have to apologize several times throughout the healing process. It’s important to apologize, express remorse, and then listen. Let the offended express their feelings, observe and reorient yourself to where you stand in the healing process, and then move forward with picking up the pieces.

Sometimes when you eat crow, it’s better not to eat it hot or cold. Sometimes it’s better served warm.

Five Steps to Repair Broken Trust

I believe that most leaders strive to be trustworthy. There aren’t too many leaders who wake up in the morning, roll out of bed and say to themselves, “Hmmm…I think I’ll try to break someone’s trust today!” Yet even in spite of our best intentions, there will be times when we damage the level of trust in our relationships. Sometimes it’s due to our own stupidity when we make choices that we know are wrong or hurtful to others. Other times we unknowingly erode trust by engaging in behaviors that others interpret as untrustworthy. Regardless of how it happens, breaking trust in a relationship is a serious matter. When a breach of trust occurs, there are five steps a leader should take to repair the relationship:

  1. Acknowledge that trust has been broken. As we’ve learned from the success of the twelve-step recovery process, acknowledging that there is a problem is the first step to healing. Don’t use the “ostrich” technique of burying your head in the sand and hoping the situation will resolve itself because it won’t. The longer you wait to address the situation, the more people will perceive your weakness as wickedness.
  2. Admit your role in causing the breach of trust. For some leaders this may be a challenging step. It’s one thing to acknowledge that there is a problem, it’s a whole other thing to admit you caused it. Our ego and false pride are usually what prevent us from admitting our mistakes. Muster up the courage, humble yourself, and own up to your actions. This will pay huge dividends down the road as you work to rebuild trust.
  3. Apologize for what happened. A sincere apology involves admitting your mistake, accepting responsibility, asking for forgiveness, and taking steps to make amends to the offended party. Explaining the reasons why something happened is fine, but don’t make excuses by trying to shift the blame to something or someone other than yourself.
  4. Assess where the breakdown in trust happened using the TrustWorks! ABCD Trust Model. Did you erode trust by not being Able, Believable, Connected, or Dependable? People form perceptions of our trustworthiness when we use, or don’t use, behaviors that align with these four elements of trust. Knowing the specific element of trust you violated will help you take specific actions to fix the problem.
  5. Amend the situation by taking corrective action to repair any damage that has been done, and create an action plan for how you’ll improve in the future. Your attempts at rebuilding trust will be stalled unless you take this critical step to demonstrate noticeable changes in behavior.

You can’t control the outcome of this process and there is no guarantee that following these steps will restore trust in the relationship. However, the important thing is that you have made the effort to improve yourself as a leader. You’ll be able to lay your head on the pillow at night with a clear conscience that you’ve done everything under your power to cultivate the soil for trust to once again grow and flourish.

I recommend reading Ken Blanchard’s “The 4th Secret of the One Minute Manager” as an elegantly simple reminder of the power of an effective apology.

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