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Why Saying ‘Sorry’ is the Right – and Smart – Thing To Do

[By Thom Fladung, Hennes Communications]

Saying “I’m sorry” can pay off – psychologically, because it’s the right thing to do, and literally, because it may get you or your business out of a tough spot while saving money and your reputation.

Last month, I wrote about how an organization’s apologies also say a lot about its culture – inspired by an excellent Harvard Business Review piece, on organizational apologies.

That Harvard Business Review story also argued persuasively that a sincere, effective apology can be the smart move from a dollars-and-cents standpoint: “Most apologies are low cost – and many create substantial value. They can help defuse a tense situation, and fears of litigation are often unfounded…research has revealed that when some hospitals began allowing doctors to offer apologies to patients and families, or even made apologizing mandatory, the likelihood of litigation was reduced.”

In a 2010 story, the New York Times pointed out that at a Veterans Affairs medical center in Lexington, Kentucky, malpractice lawsuits actually decreased under a new full-disclosure-and-apology policy.

Indeed, it seems healthcare is on the cutting edge of effective organizational apologies.

The Cincinnati law firm of Rendigs, Fry, Kiely & Dennis in one of its Healthcare Law newsletters points out: “It is no longer accurate to refer to apologies and disclosures in healthcare as a ‘trend’ or an ‘emerging’ philosophy. To the contrary, transparency in the healthcare system has become a fixed concept and appears to be here to stay.”

The website Sorry Works! is dedicated to the proposition that for healthcare organizations, well, sorry works.

Of course, there also are guidelines for saying sorry effectively and correctly. One of the big ones: Know how to apologize without prematurely admitting fault. Sorry Works! offers: “Clinicians should provide an empathetic I’m sorry immediately after an adverse event coupled with a promise of an investigation and customer service assistance such as food, lodging, phone calls, transportation, etc. …Clinicians should NOT prematurely admit fault or assign blame.”

The Harvard Business Review makes much the same argument, while also exploring how the instinct to apologize can run headlong into your attorney’s legal advice: “…companies have a strong tendency to evaluate the situation through a legal lens. Corporate counsel may fixate on whether any laws were broken and warn managers that an apology might be construed as an admission of liability (possibly exposing the company to litigation) rather than as an effort to empathize with the wronged party. This is an important distinction, because effective apologies address the recipients’ feelings – they don’t prove a point.”

And in Ohio, healthcare providers who apologize get some cover from state law.

Saying I’m sorry also can be a smart way to win over your critics, including situations not nearly as serious as healthcare matters.

I experienced that more than a few times as a newspaper editor. If nothing else, a rapid apology, especially expressed in conversational, human tones, will often disarm and surprise the folks you’ve upset.

Last June, in The Plain Dealer, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ loss in the NBA Finals was marked with this headline: NOT ENOUGH GRIT

Reaction was swift. On Twitter, Cheri Campbell tweeted: “PD managing ed @Fladung what on earth is this headline? Got this one DEAD WRONG.”

What could I say? She was right. The headline writer really had meant to say “Grit not enough.” But, under the stress of deadline and other pressures, we got it exactly wrong.

I replied on Twitter soon after I saw the tweet: “Cheri: Agreed. A miss. Plenty of grit. Better, perhaps, something like: Gritty but gone. Or, Gritty to end. But don’t get do-overs.”

And reaction to that was typically Twitter swift. Cheri Campbell said thank you for the response. Another tweeter said “Managing ed. admirably now admits it was a misfire.”

I even got a little Facebook love as the conversation about the headline moved over to that social media outlet.

Of course, not everybody bought it. Just under my apology was this tweet:

Kerin ‏@cavsfanaholic  Jun 17

@Fladung Really? REALLY?????? JACKASS


A 33-year newspaper veteran, Thom Fladung joined Hennes Communications in July.
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