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Simple Jury Persuasion: When does your client need to go  beyond apology?

Thursday, November 10, 2016
posted by Douglas Keene

beyond-apologyGender stereotypes are powerful things and when your client has broken gender stereotypes and broken trust with others, they need to go beyond mere apology. First, a bit about what gender stereotypes are:

Women are expected to be benevolent and concerned about others while men are expected to be confident, competitive and independent. Go against those expectations and you can expect backlash and distrust.

The researchers give a concrete workplace example of how these gender stereotypes work differently for men and women.

In the workplace, if a woman violates trust while putting her own interests ahead of others, for example by being dishonest or not helping a co-worker, she will find regaining that lost trust much more challenging because she went against gender stereotypes. “Had she not broken gender stereotypes and instead just broke the trust by underperforming, she would have fared better,” said Harrison.

A man who fails to put others ahead of himself, however, will only face consequences for a breach of trust. That’s because men are not expected to help others. Lying or refusing to help a co-worker doesn’t affect those expectations. A man will also face the same double backlash if he performs poorly though. In this case, he will have violated the trust placed in him, but also will have gone against gender expectations that men are good performers.

It’s complicated—this gender role thing. And the researchers also speak to how repairing trust works differently for men than it does for women.

The research seems to show that if a man is trying to repair trust he should do it in a way that is consistent with expectations of what men should be. “One way is to apologize and take personal responsibility for what happened and not blame it on external factors,” said Harrison.

However, if a woman violates trust in a way that breaks gender stereotypes, she is better not to apologize, but deny responsibility or blame external factors.

The researchers say that if you just violate the trust of others but do not breach gender stereotypes at the same time—both men and women will find it easier to regain trust. They recommend organizations pay more attention to the complex relationship between gender and trust in conflict management and diversity training and they offer multiple examples of how both gender stereotypes and trust were broken during the 2016 presidential election campaign.

Their bottom-line recommendation to organizations is this:

In other words, a women’s lack of helping others or a man’s low performance shouldn’t be treated any more severely than if a woman shows low ability or a man puts his needs ahead of others.

Our gender stereotypes are so firmly entrenched that they are unconscious and we do not even realize we are punishing someone for violating gender stereotypes when we would treat a person of the other gender quite differently for the same behavior.

The authors also comment in the article that it is important as well to differentiate between violations of integrity and violations of ability expectations. (These recommendations are based on some research done in 2004 and 2006 finding that “trust repair is more likely when people apologize for ability-related violations and deny responsibility for integrity-related violations”.)

For violations of integrity, you will want to apologize and deny responsibility (i.e., make an external attribution). Women are likely to find these violations more difficult to recover from them men.

For violations of ability, you will want to apologize and accept responsibility (i.e., make an internal attribution). Men are likely to find these violations more difficult to recover from than women.

This article is meant as a working document to guide researchers working to integrate apology and gender stereotypes research. Here are a couple of examples they use from the current presidential election to illustrate the complicated relationship between gender stereotypes and apology.

“With the Hilary [sic] Clinton email scandal, her critics were claiming she put national security at risk for her own convenience, putting her own needs ahead of her responsibility as a public official. This is a clear example of breaking trust and gender expectations,” said Frawley.

Trump faced this double backlash when his critics pointed to a string of failed business ventures and his inability to raise campaign funds. “What these claims are trying to get at is that despite Trump’s reputation and his connections, he’s not performing so well at things that men traditionally are viewed at being good at,” said Frawley. “They were saying he can’t be trusted to perform well and has in fact misrepresented himself which plays into gender stereotypes.”

Take Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican Convention which plagiarized portions of a 2008 Michelle Obama speech. Trump claimed to have written it with “as little helps as possible,” but then a speechwriter took responsibility for accidentally using portion of Obama’s speech. “This is a clear case of Trump blaming external factors,” said Frawley.

Given the three examples above, it is intriguing to consider a fourth real-life example the researchers did not use from the presidential election campaign (perhaps because it happened after they were published).

Hillary Clinton initially said Colin Powell (the former Secretary of State) had told her it was okay to have her server at home (and this would be an example of an integrity violation for which you blame external factors). In this strategy, Hillary followed the rules for successful trust reparation after violating gender stereotypes and damaging trust. But Colin Powell did not back her up and said he’d never said any such thing.

So Hillary and her team apparently went back to the drawing board and she came back in the second debate of the 2016 election and apologized, taking personal responsibility for the error. (This would be a direct contradiction of the recommendations for a woman—she apologized for an integrity violation and took personal responsibility.) Her explanation for why this happened appears to be an attempt to reiterate her integrity and the lack of bad outcome for her error in judgment.

From a litigation advocacy perspective, this shift in strategy may be instructive. We often find during pretrial research that a strategy (like an apology) does not have the desired effect (e.g., mock jurors may find it glib or deceptive but certainly not believable) and so we will work to refine that strategy. Perhaps Hillary and her team did similar research (or they just read the papers and the internet) and decided they needed to be bold and throw gender expectations a curveball.

So she apologized for an integrity violation, accepted responsibility (rather than attributing it to an external cause), and then explained how she still was a person with integrity. While different from what is recommended by the apology research (and the research on gender stereotype violations) it seemed more honest and genuine and that may be a good thing.

Sometimes, you have to toss the rules when a strategy doesn’t work and surprise listeners with unexpected integrity.

Frawley, S., & Harrison, J. (2016). A social role perspective on trust repair Journal of Management Development, 35 (8), 1045-1055 DOI: 10.1108/JMD-10-2015-0149


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