The Psychology of Apology

Last year I was in the thick of Bush Smarts. We launched on November 28, 2012, late and scraping what we could from the holiday season, and started the year in a roller coaster of getting hammered by (good) press and learning how to scale.  

I was busy and shouldn’t have taken on extra projects, but I had already agreed (in mid-2012) to help the National Eagle Scout Association with their social media for the National Jamboree (July 2013).

Yes, I'm an Eagle Scout. 2nd Generation in Fact. Credit: Hales Studio

Yes, I’m an Eagle Scout. 2nd Generation in fact. Credit: Hales Studio

Long story short, the process was slow going. I didn’t really know what I was doing, couldn’t fit into the very corporatized (not a criticism) organizational framework and backed out of being there, opting instead to run things remotely. They had decent results but it could’ve been much, much better. For one thing, this was my life before Gary Vaynerchuk. My leadership was weak and non-existent, not very Eagle Scout-like.

Last weekend I went to a best friend’s engagement party that turned into a surprise wedding. He asked me before the party to run the attendance sheet for the shuttle bus and I saw that the guy who ran the Scout event was going to be on the bus. We spoke on a quarterly interval prior to the scouting fallout, but not really after.

I wanted to offer an apology to “bury the hatchet.”

Here’s what I wrote:

Don’t take this as me being weird in a “harmful stalker kind of way” (great intro), but I wanted to let you know I’ve thought of you a lot over the past year and have really grown an admiration for you being such a hero career guy, Dad to many, husband to one and inspirational leader in Scouts and your community…

Looking back, I feel like a completely different person than I was last year – and that’s probably the 3rd year in a row I can say that. Particularly I’ve thought a lot about my involvement in the jamboree and how differently that could’ve gone (knowing what I know now). You were always very graceful through the whole process, and I appreciate that…

…If you hold any resentment towards me for falling short, I want you to know that I’m sorry and I hope you can forgive me. I’m really looking forward to catching up and celebrating together.

He wrote back very quickly, saying there was no bad blood and he totally “gets it.” Before he was a high-octane corporate lawyer, he had flaked out of many scouting opportunities to pursue internships, jobs, etc.

 I was glad to have the relationship reconciled and even invited him to visit Bush Smarts HQ before we left to go to the wedding. All was right with the world.

I think that genuine apology, forgiveness and grace are too often overlooked as valid exchanges in the business world. They matter. 

By showing some humility and seeking reconciliation I regained a valuable advisor and have one less thing weighing me down on the inside.

In the second story, I was apologized to for no reason.

The same day that I delivered my apology, I got an email from one of our drop shipping partners that we needed to send a Game Kit to a customer. I was on the way out of town, completely forgot to tell John, and it stayed on my to-do list all week until Thursday when we got an email from our partner that the woman hadn’t received the order (for obvious reasons).

 

That's a Game Kit. If you live in my neighborhood I'll deliver to you too.

That’s a Game Kit. If you live in my neighborhood I’ll deliver to you too.

 

Luck would have it that out of the entire United States, she lives in Brooklyn, off of my subway stop. I wrote the customer directly, cc’ing the partner, that I was dearly sorry for my mistake and would hand deliver it to her apartment. This was the interesting part.

The customer wrote back apologetically saying not only how unnecessary it was for me to do that, but also how sorry she was for not ordering the gift sooner. She was even willing to have it be late for her sister’s birthday if it meant me not having to deliver.

After work that night we coordinated delivery via text, and she apologized again and again that I had to do that – even though it was on my way home. As I walked away she texted to thank me again for doing it and gave another apology. I was quite fascinated by this, noticing two patterns:

#1. Women apologize too much.

This idea came to light in the media back in June when Pantene released a brilliant campaign encouraging women to #ShineStrong. I don’t feel qualified enough to prescribe why some women apologize too much, but it is a highly-measurable phenomenon and worth exploring.

#2. Favor-Debt

The normal dynamic surrounding favors is that when you ask someone to do you a favor, the person who does the favor feels indebted to the person who asked. Doesn’t seem to make sense right?

This phenomenon was most famously discovered and utilized by Ben Franklin who used it to gain favor with an opposing Pennsylvania politician. I just read about it in The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday and also this Forbes article.

Ultimately Bush Smarts gained a big win with that customer and I even got a followup thank you from our drop ship partner saying how above-and-beyond that was – all after I had made a huge oversight! This is not to say at all that you should orchestrate failures to create these silver-lining situations, but rather that in any situation you should focus on finding the upside.

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