What You Need to Know About Apologies and Power Dynamics

Apologies and Power Dynamics: What you need to know

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I’m sorry. So sorry. My apologies. Mea culpa.

Such short phrases that should just roll off of your tongue, right?

But what if you are expected to apologize when you strongly believe you did nothing wrong? Expected to apologize when the person you are told to apologize to is at ‘fault,’ from your perspective?

What you need to know about apologies and power dynamics
What you need to know about apologies and power dynamics

A colleague endured a tirade from an ‘internal customer.’ It lasted close to an hour.

I kept my distance because 1) I didn’t want to exacerbate the problem; and 2) our supervisor in my colleague’s office standing by, tried to defuse the toxic situation.

Due to privacy concerns, I cannot go into detail, but the next day, said colleague was advised to send an apology.

Flashback to my childhood.

Verbally and physically assaulted after I stood my ground when harassed about medical bills (for myself and for my younger sister), I was expected to apologize to my stepmother.

Did I want to offer an apology when I didn’t feel morally obligated? No. Did I do it? Yes, my father didn’t give me a choice.

So, after what happened to my colleague, I have been reflecting on what bothered me so much the situation?

Can one in good conscience apologize half-heartedly? Would such an apology be hollow?

Could she apologize in a vague manner, acknowledging the communication breakdown, without accepting the accuser’s blame? Would doing so encourage future power struggles?

After deep reflection, I was left with a nagging feeling that something deeper was at play.

When in doubt, Google it.

In my search, I stumbled upon a blog post that provided scriptural guidance on apologizing when you have done nothing wrong.  Citing Matthew 5:23-24:

“This is how I want you to conduct yourself in these matters. If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.”


the authors suggest that who is at fault is not the question–instead, one should focus on making things right. (Kind of reminds me of the ‘never go to bed anger’ (with your spouse/partner) dictum.


Apologies & Power Dynamics in the Workplace


After mulling it over for several days and reflecting on the moral dilemma of being asked to apologize to one’s accuser (or, in some cases, aggressor), I felt the gravitational pull to search for academic literature addressing the question of apologies and power dynamics.

Back to the drawing board with my trusty friend, Google.

I unearthed a study conducted overseas by Walfisch, Van Dijk, and Kark, “Do You Really Expect Me to Apologize? The Impact of Status and Gender on the Effectiveness of an Apology in the Workplace.”

Why do some people dread apologizing? According to the authors:

It is possible that managers are hesitant to apologize because they think that proffering an apology will be perceived as a sign of personal weakness, which may be incompatible with the image they wish to present. In various professions (e.g., physicians), the fear of apologizing may be even more extreme since doing so in certain situations can also compromise their legal positions (Kiger, 2004; Van Dusen & Spies, 2003).

The study also discusses the role that gender plays in apology expectations and the effectiveness of apologizing. The authors note:

It seems fairly intuitive that subordinates are expected to apologize more thanmanagers, as they are dependent on them and are obligated to maintain civil working relations (even if they are not genuinely sorry for what they did). However, how can we explain the fact that a woman is expected to apologize more than her male counterpart? This may stem from the fact that women today are still perceived as having lower socialstatus than men (Levin, 2004) and therefore a woman’s apology is a social obligation while a man’s apology is perceived to be beyond the expected. Another explanation may be that women do actually apologize more since they have undergone different socialization processes and internalized their gender roles, which include awareness of and sensitivity to their environment and a high willingness to maintain good relations. Women are expected to display “nicer” behaviors than men (Eagly & Mladinic, 1989;Glick & Fiske, 1996; Rudman, 1998) (Walfisch et al, p. 25).
Recognizing the study’s limitations, the authors suggest further research into whether apologizing is as effective as other strategies to resolve conflicts in different cultures or religious groups.
Given that my colleagues and I work with an international population, a comparative study on apologizing (and alternative methods of conflict resolution) would be fascinating. {Note to self: Check if Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner, the brains behind ‘Riding the Waves of Culture,’ have studied this or cited studies of this nature!}
I set aside this post for a day or two or three and continued processing that uncomfortable scene. Further reflection on the ‘art of apologizing’ pervaded my thoughts.

Apologies and Power Dynamics in Academia

Welp, yet another flashback to my youth. An angry, arrogant college professor accused me of cutting his class.
When it came to light after the fact (thanks to my teaching assistant who was ‘in the know’) that I had missed a class to attend a court trial regarding a request for increased child support, my professor recognized his mistake and rescinded his diatribe.
He sent me a written apology. I wish I had kept it. It was short and sincere, acknowledged his grave mistake. My professor apologized profusely, and for the life of me, I wish I could remember the literary quote he included. It was the most elegant and sincere apology I have ever received. It held weight because this professor was never known to apologize.
The previously cited study notes that when men, who don’t apologize as often as women, do apologize, it is often held in higher regard. Also, given the tenured professor’s standing, the power dynamics involved gave greater weight to this rare apology.
So, how can these insights shed some light on apologies in the workplace?
What recommendations would you give a colleague if faced with a similar situation in your workplace? Please comment and discuss below!

As Brenda Lee sang…I’m sorry.







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