To err is human – To apologize is humane

Conflict is a natural and inevitable part of being human. At home or in the workplace, different opinions, perspectives, and values intersect to create interactions that are challenging and taxing to navigate, even at the highest levels of leadership. For example, CEOs rate conflict management skills as their most important area for professional development.

Handling conflict can become even more challenging when we are the offending party. When we are responsible for hurting someone, we often get angry at the person we harmed, avoid the situation, or try to rationalize our behaviour rather than apologizing for it.

However, a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences highlights the importance of apology in repairing and strengthening our relationships. This research examined how people respond when those who offended them offered an apology. The longitudinal nature of this investigation also meant that the researchers could examine what effect the apology had after the event occurred and track forgiveness levels in the weeks ahead.

When participants received an apology after the conflict, the research team found that the level of forgiveness towards the transgressor rose significantly several weeks after the occurrence. Furthermore, the level of anger the individuals felt towards the ‘offender’ significantly decreased after the apology.

Two major factors contributed to these positive outcomes. First, the transgressor was seen as more valuable as a relationship partner, since the apology signified the level of importance the transgressor placed on the relationship. The apology also made the individual who was harmed feel more confident in the strength and stability of the relationship moving forward.

Second, and equally as important, the transgressor was seen as less likely to engage in hurtful behaviors in the future and genuinely desired for the conflict to end.

What were the most effective forms of apology?

Given the positive impacts of apologies to enhance the strength and sustainability of a personal or professional relationship, the research team was interested in uncovering the distinguishing features an effective apology.
Here is what they found:
1) Say “I’m sorry” – Not surprisingly, openly acknowledging regret for the incident was an important element of moving forward, a feature which has also been noted in research conducted through the Harvard Negotiation Project.
2) Offering a form of compensation – This signalled to the individual that the person was genuinely remorseful for the harmful act and interested in finding a way to facilitate with the healing process.
3) Taking responsibility – In many situations, a ‘non-apology’ is offered where the individual/party essentially dodges taking responsibility for their actions, but regrets any ‘inconvenience’ or ‘hurt feelings’ caused by their actions. It is a hollow statement of remorse, one that is deemed to be inauthentic and unhelpful. Fully accepting responsibility for their actions expedited the forgiveness process.

Despite our history with conflict, the vast majority of us struggle with making amends. We either avoid the conversation or make things worse with an awkward ‘non-apology.’

Making mistakes is a necessary and unavoidable part of life. However, when our mistakes negatively impact others, we can use the opportunity to not only repair our bonds with others, but also to strengthen them. The above research not only shows the importance of a genuine apology for restoring our relationships, it also provides a roadmap to better equip us to engage in these conversations more effectively. By saying we’re sorry, offering compensation, and taking responsibility for our words/actions, we can take steps to repair the damage to our relationships and reconnect with the people around us.

Posted in Do Good to Do Well, Empathy, Humility

Why We Benefit From Eating A Little Humble Pie

Everyone loves to talk about their strengths. From commercials to political speeches, from celebrities to job interviewees, people are much more comfortable talking about where they excel, rather than identifying any potential weaknesses. The prevailing logic is that hiding one’s shortcomings is the best way to put your “best face forward.”

Although this may seem like a reasonable assumption, both research and case studies highlighting the benefits of humility have emerged in recent years. One of my favorite real-life examples comes from Domino’s Pizza.

In the mid-2000s Domino’s pizza was really struggling. The incoming Chief Marketing Officer (Russell Weiner) inherited flat sales cycles in the midst of a struggling economy. At the heart of Domino’s’ challenge was the quality of their pizzas, as various internal taste tests had highlighted. Domino’s then took the extra step of gathering feedback from its various stakeholders, including customers and franchisees, to better inform their future directions. Using this critical feedback, they committed to turning out higher quality pizza and revamped their entire recipe from crust to toppings.

Although the internal directive to change their recipe, which had been in existence for 50 years, represented a bold step, perhaps their most striking endeavor was the level of transparency they showed regarding this critical problem. Rather than try to sweep it under the rug or use ‘creative marketing’ to detract attention, Domino’s took a highly unusual step of tackling it head-on.

Perhaps the most forward-thinking aspect of their ‘re-launch’ was a series of commercials, which aired in 2009 and 2010. In these ads, customers were shown voicing their disgust at the quality of the “old recipe” pizza (e.g., “the crust tastes like cardboard”). These comments were then followed by Domino’s hitting the streets with their new product to re-engage with their harshest detractors to win them back.

The company also released a short-film, which provided the history of the pizza chain as well as showing the painstaking reactions from employees while hearing and reading these complaints.

As President Patrick Doyle noted in the short film, “You can either use negative comments to get you down or you can use them to excite you and energize your process and make it a better pizza. We did the latter.”

Early returns from the campaign indicated it was an incredible success, with a 14.3% increase in same-store Q1 sales from 2009 to 2010, with similar gains realized in Q3 (11.2% improvement when compared to Q3 in 2009).

This trend has continued, with the stock price climbing almost 20% over the past four years. The entire transformation is not yet complete, as Doyle is committed to providing complete transparency to Domino’s customers by 2017 by allowing them to see the entire pizza-making process.

What can we learn from Domino’s?

1)            Do not be afraid to completely start over – Domino’s acknowledged their problem rested in a 50-year-old approach to making pizza and set out to change it. Despite the history of the company being built on this recipe, they committed to change. When the environment speaks, even when we may not like the message, we need to listen.

2)            Use the harshest criticism to inspire next-level greatness – Domino’s could have easily dismissed this feedback or decided not to reach out to these individuals once they re-launched their product. Rather than take this approach, Domino’s included these individuals as part of their campaign with the primary aim of bring these customers back into the fold.

3)            Vulnerability is a painful, yet powerful experience – It is not easy listening to scathing feedback. However, being open and accepting allows us to build even stronger relationships with the people around us, even when we may feel the opposite. Showing our vulnerability and empathizing with the customer experience goes a long way to building a better brand and stakeholder relationships.

Despite our widespread desire for transparency and authenticity, it is very often perceived as a risky endeavor. Domino’s has shown that embracing this fear and being open to learning can benefit ourselves as well as the people around us. The next time you are facing tough feedback, remember the storied franchise that faced these messages head-on. Eating some humble pie and using this experience to maximize our potential opens us up to all of the possibilities that life has to offer. By engaging our detractors with an open mind and a willingness to listen, we can turn our harshest critics into our staunchest supporters.

Posted in Authenticity, Do Good to Do Well, Humility, Self Awareness, Success
Leader’s Code Survey