In more cases that one might imagine, workplace conflict could have been resolved with a simple apology. But with the current zeitgeist’s preoccupation with litigation, an apology is too often only viewed through the prism of an admission of liability. Then there’s also the issue of those who “don’t do apologies” because they see them purely as a display of weakness. Enter the emergence of the “faux” apology: – “I’m sorry that the person feels wronged”.

As simple as it may sound, though, the value of a humble apology cannot be underestimated. There are a number of reasons why an apology can be a powerful tool in resolving a dispute.

The first is that an apology is human. It encourages some moral introspection on the part of the person giving it and requires them to look at their behaviour and how they have treated the other person. Even if they do not admit fault, the very acknowledgement of the other person’s injury and showing regret that they feel that way, is valuable. This shared acknowledgment of the human condition can help heal the relationship and create a more positive dynamic. In addition, if the parties involved are going to continue working together, it can set the tone for their relationship in the future. Even if an apology is not the sole resolution on the table, it can ease the path to settlement of the dispute.

Other Elements of an Apology

Dr Aaron Lazare, in his book “On Apology”, identifies several elements to an apology:

  1. Acknowledgment – a recognition of the wrong/injury and a willingness to be personally accountable for it
  2. Affect – the demonstration of regret or shame
  3. Vulnerability – the apology is offered without defence – and does not need to be accepted
  4. The exchange of shame and power – a role reversal where the person apologising relinquishes power and puts him/herself at the mercy of the offended party
  5. Restitution/reparation.

When an Apology is Appropriate in Workplace Conflict?

What’s interesting is which workplaces are more able to facilitate a constructive apology to help rebuild and re-orientate interpersonal dynamics. When an organisation is supportive of employees apologising to one another or acknowledging responsibility, it is often reflective of a culture in which employees are encouraged to communicate with one another and are not fearful of making mistakes. It also suggests that the organisation takes seriously its employees’ commitment to the Code of Conduct and an expectation that employees will take responsibility for their behaviour towards one another.

Conversely, organisations that are hierarchical and encourage competition between employees and business “silos”, are less likely to view apologies and the acceptance of responsibility as something which is important to the smooth running of the organisation, or valuable for employee collegiality.

An apology should not be seen as an “easy out”, but instead a learning and acknowledgement towards reparation. Whether an apology is an appropriate means of resolving workplace conflict will depend on a number of factors, including, the seriousness and extent of the complaint as if the complaint it serious, it is unlikely an apology alone will resolve the dispute. Firstly, when trying to resolve a dispute it is fundamental to consider, what is it that the parties want to achieve? What is a resolution that all the parties can live with? These questions involve not just those in conflict, but their employer as well. What is the context or cause of the conflict? Is it merely an opportunity for one or more parties to vent about issues in the workplace? Do both the parties understand that they have a commitment to work appropriately together in the future? Has the employer effectively communicated to its employees their obligations in the workplace and an expectation that these obligations are to be adhered to?

An apology without sincerity has the potential to escalate the issue. If the recipient of an apology considers that the apology is not genuine in its motivation, then this not only reduces the likelihood of it being accepted as a resolution, but it can derail the dispute resolution process altogether, as the complainant may not feel that their concerns are being taken seriously.

Finally, the timing of an apology is also crucial. It is vital that an apology occurs at a stage in the dispute before matters have escalated to a point where feelings are too intense and the parties’ positions may have become too entrenched. This is why it is important that employees and the employer should be proactive about raising and addressing issues at an early stage. Lost time will only escalate the issue.

Using an Apology in Different Settings

When two people are in conflict, their ability to communicate has often so badly broken down that the prospect of apologising may seem too challenging. Individuals may need assistance to apologise if they are defensive or preoccupied with viewing who is to blame. They may even need assistance to find the right words.

At Worklogic we regularly assist employers to negotiate resolutions of employee disputes and we have found that apology can be used extremely constructively, during both facilitated discussions and mediations.

For instance, Worklogic was involved in facilitating a discussion between two workmates who had a history of working well together, but fell out when one workmate made an inappropriate overture to the other. The complainant was upset and annoyed with the respondent for overstepping the boundaries of their professional relationship. The respondent on the other hand was filled with remorse and humiliation and simply wanted things to return to the way they were before. Ultimately the respondent made a formal apology and together they agreed on some parameters around how they would interact with one another- and they continued to work together comfortably.

Mediation tends to be more formal in structure than facilitated discussion, and so in the context of mediation, an apology might form part of a more formal settlement, that is documented in a written agreement, with the apology also provided in writing.

On other occasions, outside of any particular mediation process, Worklogic has been asked to assist a senior manager to prepare an apology about how they have behaved towards another employee, and have coached the manager to build a more positive relationship with the team.

What if an Apology is Offered but the Matter Still Cannot be Resolved?

An apology may not always succeed in resolving a dispute. Sometimes, the complainant may view the apology with suspicion – questioning the sincerity of the sentiment or the motivations of the person offering it.

As noted, where the wrong is serious, an apology may seem insufficient and worse, may seem to trivialise the complaint in which case it may offend more than appease.

However as many commentators on the use of an apology in dispute resolution have observed, forgiveness need not be insisted upon for an apology to still bear weight in the dispute resolution process. Often the complainant may feel too wronged to immediately forgive the other party, but may still appreciate the other party’s willingness to acknowledge their hurt and take steps to fix it.

Conclusion

An apology can be a simple yet extremely effective means of resolving a dispute or at least easing the way to overall resolution. For those reticent to offer an apology, the following words from Aaron Lazare offer a sophisticated perspective on what an apology can mean:

“the apology is a show of strength. It is an act of honesty because we admit we did wrong; an act of generosity, because it restores the self-concept of those we offended. It offers hope for a renewed relationship and, who knows, possibly even a strengthened one. The apology is an act of commitment because it consigns us to working at the relationship and at our self-development. Finally, the apology is an act of courage because it subjects us to the emotional distress of shame and the risk of humiliation, rejection, and retaliation at the hands of the person we offended.”

Thus, an apology can be dignified and restorative for both parties.

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