Why people find it hard to forgive leaders who say ‘sorry’

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In every workplace people occasionally feel wronged after a conflict. An apology can help to restore trust and normalise working relations but only when it comes with forgiveness. A new study by a team of scientists including Marius van Dijke and Laura M. Giurge of Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM), shows that apologies coming from a leader may not have that desired healing effect. When duped staff members have less power than the wrongdoer, they become cynical about the good intentions behind the apology and find it hard to forgive, the study found.

Forgiveness is very important in working situations, Laura M. Giurge argues. Without it, reconciliation after conflicts becomes an empty ritual. Holding grudges after such reconciliations without forgiveness can be stressful for employees and harm their well-being. In the long run, these unforgiven wrongdoings can also deteriorate co-operation within teams and harm the company’s productivity, she says.

The trust game

To measure how people’s responses to having been treated unjustly are influenced by the wrongdoer’s power, the team ran two surveys and one experiment. In one of the surveys, participants were asked to recall a past work situation where they had been wronged and record their reaction to that. In a lab experiment, based on ‘the trust game’, participants were blatantly tricked out of their portion of playing chips by an imaginary opponent. Across all of these studies the researchers found that duped employees were less likely to forgive the wrongdoing when a violator with higher power apologised.

Victim cynicism

The reason for this, researcher Laura M. Giurge says, is that being in a powerful position changes how others perceive you. Leaders often have the power to influence the rewards other people will receive. They can also decide what tasks others should, or should not, perform. Having such ‘harsh’ power generally makes people with low power question your good intentions, Giurge says. Low-power people often assume that people with high power, like managers or leaders, have a hidden agenda focused on promoting their own interests. This makes people that have been victimised cynical towards people with more power when they apologise. As a result, those apologies are not very effective in creating forgiveness, the research shows.

Supportive environment

Giurge says that managers who have something to apologise for should be aware that a simple expression of remorse would probably not be enough. Apart from offering an apology they should also try to address the underlying cynicism in their teams towards them by creating a supportive working environment with open communication. Only then will their ‘I am sorry’ start to ring true and will those with less power forgive them.

Read the paper: Xue Zheng, Marius van Dijke, Joost M. Leunissen, Laura M. Giurge, and David De Cremer (2016). When saying sorry may not help: transgressor power moderates the effect of an apology on forgiveness in the workplace, Human Relations

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s leading business schools, and ranked among the top three for research. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who carry their innovative mindset into a sustainable future thanks to a first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes. RSM also has offices in Chengdu, China, and Taipei, Taiwan. www.rsm.nl

For more information on RSM or on this release, please contact Ramses Singeling, Media Officer for RSM, on +31 10 408 2028, or by email at singeling@rsm.nl.

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