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We prefer apologies from men over apologies from women

Friday, September 6, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

apology-formSo it’s been a while since we’ve revisited this category of posts. We know you’ve missed them, so here’s a new one. Apologies from men in the workplace are less expected and therefore more effective. Oh, good grief. Extra credit for conjuring up some manners?

Researchers review prior findings on apology: women apologize more and we tend to take their apologies for granted; we don’t care about apologies from our subordinates as much as apologies from our managers; and so on.

Research participants were “asked to imagine a specific situation in which a person [David or Rachel] who scheduled a work meeting with them did not show up and did not notify them ahead of time. The following day, “David” or “Rachel” [the person was identified by both gender and role– either a subordinate or a manager] sent a letter apologizing: ‘I am sorry I did not come to our meeting yesterday. I had so many unexpected things to do and I completely forgot about it. I heard from the secretary that you did all the work by yourself. I’m sorry you left work late and will try to make sure this does not happen again’.

After reading the above description, the research participants responded to several questions about the effectiveness of the apology and how expected the apology was to them. And, here is what the researcher’s found (much of which you likely can predict):

A manager’s apology was more effective than a subordinate’s apology.

A man’s apology was more effective than a woman’s apology but only when the reviewer was a woman. Specifically, women reacted more positively to an apology from a man than to an apology from a woman. Men, on the other hand, reacted similarly to apologies regardless of whether the apology came from a man or a woman.

Apologies from male managers were the most effective. Then female managers, male subordinates, and finally female subordinates.

An apology from a manager was more important (statistically speaking) than being either a male or a female apologizing. The researchers say that since apologies from managers are unexpected, they are more powerful and effective.

In short, say the researchers, “a woman’s apology is less accepted than that of a man, but a female manager’s apology is accepted more than an apology from a male subordinate.” They also go on to say something we see semi-regularly in our pretrial research: “women were less willing to forgive a female who apologized than a male who apologized”. The researchers believe female coworkers believe a female (manager or subordinate) who has wronged them has somehow violated what should be a “sisterhood” and so the women are less willing to forgive.

What we see in our pretrial research is less a sense of sisterhood breached, than a sense of bristling by female mock jurors over a female Plaintiff or female Defendant who has made an error that would never have been made by our female mock jurors. They identify with the female in the story more than most men do of male characters. Women display amazing levels of hindsight bias when it comes to other women– female mock jurors would always have supervised their children better, judged the character of a romantic partner more accurately, gotten that verbal agreement in writing, always gotten second and even third opinions when positive medical information was received…

In short, we see female mock jurors more severely judging female parties (and yes, even female attorneys) frequently.

But we don’t see it as due to a breach of “sisterhood”. Instead, we think it’s due to a desire to stay safe. Women want to keep their children safe, not invite untrustworthy men into their lives, succeed professionally, stay healthy, and in general, stay safe. The reaction is one of reassuring themselves that they are safe, that they are not vulnerable to this particular misfortune. When they see female parties in lawsuits who have not done that, they assure themselves (and us) that they would have succeeded where these other women failed. It’s not so much an offensive maneuver, as a defensive strategy.

But we digress. People in lesser power positions are seen as apologizing too much and women (by virtue of gender) are seen as less powerful than men. Thus, we expect women to apologize and so when they do, we shrug. It doesn’t register. But when a powerful man apologizes, we revel in it and give him kudos for doing the unexpected.

There is some reason to be positive about these research results. If you have risen to a managerial position in the workplace as a woman, while your apology will not be as effective or as accepted as the apology of a male manager, it will be more effective than an apology from a male subordinate. That’s a good thing, right?

The researchers advise transgressors on apologizing: “When a manager is indecisive about whether to apologize or maintain his or her silence, our answer is apologize, but make sure you do not have to do it too often”.

Walfisch, T, Van Dijk, D, & Kark, R (2013). Do you really expect me to apologize? The impact of status and gender on the effectiveness of an apology in the workplace. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12101


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