The Power Of An Apology: Turn “Oops” Into Opportunity

Apparently, an apology is worth more than a civil suit.

Hospitals have discovered that a simple apology, issued by culpable staff, actually reduces lawsuits against medical institutions.

The University of Michigan Health System was one of the first to experiment with a prompt and full disclosure of medical errors to patients. After implementing the full-disclosure system, the university found existing claims and lawsuits decreased from 252 in August 2011 to only 83 in August 2007.

The University of Illinois also implemented a fill-disclosure program and watched as its malpractice suits fell by half over the course of two years. In the 37 cases where the hospital acknowledged a preventable error and then apologized, just a single patient filed suit.

“By promptly disclosing medical errors and offering earnest apologies and fair compensation, they hope to restore integrity to dealings with patients, make it easier to learn from mistakes and dilute anger that often fuels lawsuits,” the New York Times reported in regards to these findings.

Even states are encouraging hospitals and doctors to increase claims of responsibility to reduce claims of malpractice.

“To give doctors comfort, 34 states have enacted laws making apologies for medical errors inadmissible in court, said Doug Wojcieszak, founder of The Sorry Works! Coalition, a group that advocates for disclosure. Four states have gone further and protected admissions of culpability. Seven require that patients be notified of serious unanticipated outcomes,” continued the NYT.

The medical field is not the only industry to profit from professions of guilt.

Businessmen are more likely to regain the trust of a client after acknowledging and apologizing for mistakes, a study finds.

Research conducted by Roy Lewicki, professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business, presented 45 graduate business students with a scenario of a business deal gone array, resulting in a loss of revenue, including different combinations of apologies vs. no apologies from the offending client, sincere vs. non-sincere statements, large losses of revenue vs. small losses, etc.

According to Ohio State Research News, the study revealed that “victims were much more willing to consider reconciliation when the client offered an explicit apology rather than simply an attempt to placate the victim. Moreover, apologies were most effective when the client took personal blame for the situation rather than blaming outside forces.”

Amid complex filing deadlines, inexperienced first-years, and long nights at the office, associates are bound to make a few missteps.

And, attorney-client relationships can be exceptionally fragile. After all, lawsuits—particularly corporate litigation or family law—are high-pressure, high-cost, and often highly personal.   So, errors—in the courtroom or in judgment—may cost you both the case and a (once) loyal client.

Sometimes appeals are more straightforward than salvaging your firm’s attorney-client relationship and all its billable hours.

But, turns out, when it comes down to profits, doctors, businessmen, and lawyers earn more respect and fees by owning up to their professional mistakes and by issuing sincere apologies to clients instead of excuses.   An honest phone call or in-person meeting is your firm’s best defense.

However, if claiming culpability makes the managing partners too uncomfortable, you can always spend the non-billable hour emailing the client this (see, Hugh MacLeod’s new series of “Business Greeting Cards“):


Remember, an apology is better than the best insurance coverage.




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