The Need To Apologise and Why It’s A Key Leadership Conflict Resolution Skill

Theresa May expressed “regret” recently, for the massacre of unarmed Indian men, women and children in the city of Amritsar by the British Army. This tragic event took place over one hundred years ago on 13th April 1919 in reaction to the rising opposition and civil disobedience towards British imperialism and their local governors.

The British government condemned the act in 1920, and in 2013, David Cameron attended the site of the massacre and paid tribute to those killed but refused to apologise. Instead he preferred to focus on the future and to acknowledge respectfully, the acts that had occurred.  He made a similar comment when Jamaican activists called for an apology for Britain’s role in the slave trade.

Group Conflict

Making an apology is not just about saying the word “sorry.” It’s about how leaders respond to conflict and how they prevent it from escalating which is a key leadership skill. This blog post is about how you can change the way you see group conflict and your own responses to it in your everyday situations.

Group conflict is about individuals united in common perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and sometimes personal characteristics, in conflict with another, similarly organised collection of people.

Here are some common examples:

  • Team conflicts at work. As a manager, you need to know how to prevent them from escalating beyond control to ensure a tranquil and productive work environment;
  • Inter-community conflict. This could be between different ethnicities, different religious groups, wealthy and disadvantaged groups or between the police and youths;
  • Property conflicts. These could occur between leaseholders/ tenants and management companies, property developers and local communities;
  • Family conflict. one group of relatives could oppose another;
  • Customer conflict. Companies can face several customer complaints about a defective product, a disaster or a terrible service.

Group Dynamics

Groups can be defined along lines of culture, ethnicity, religion or social interests. What binds people together in a sense of belonging, is a common attitude, belief or perception of the world and this could be closely linked to a person’s sense of identity. If you belong to a community of a certain culture, your whole family belongs to it, as do many of your friends and other people that you may have grown up with. That community may also share the same religion as you do and your sense of belonging is linked very closely to your own identity. Conflict reinforces those bonds. If your community has suffered years of discrimination and marginalisation, this will entrench those attitudes and belief systems, creating a need to support and uphold the ideals that connect you. This really is about survival and the perception of threat from the outside world.

Other groups may have attitudes towards yours. They may define you in a certain way and this could be based on their own experience of their interactions with the group. If there is a history of conflict between two groups, this too will entrench perceptions of behaviour or prejudice.

We can see this play out in all sorts of conflict on different levels of society. Looking at football supporters, groups of mostly men gather on weekends in stadiums to support their teams, celebrating in their triumph and commiserating their losses. In the stands, they trade the most appalling insults to fans from the opposite team, have certain views about those teams and their fans and sing chants to degrade the other team, rejoicing in their own. Supporting a football team is linked to where you are from, who your family supports and is often a strong part of family relationships and friendships.

Acts Committed by Group Members

Groups are composed of individuals and they can commit an act that causes outrage to an opposing group. Incensed, this may incite a need for revenge. Leaders are responsible for addressing this need and as tensions escalate, conflict can sometimes become violent or destructive in other ways.

Leaders’ Usual Responses

Credibility as a leader is crucial in maintaining control and influence over the group. Leaders are key influencers in instilling the attitudes, beliefs and perceptions that bind the group together. It is essential, for the survival of the group to ensure that they are preserved and reinforced, especially when threatened from an outside force.

This is exactly why the usual response of leaders to an offensive, individual act, is to deny that it occurred and to defend the member.[1] That could include saying that an act was regrettable but it’s just the kind of thing that happened during those times and it was dealt with at the time so there’s no point re-visiting it. It could also be justified by the perceived behaviour of the opposing group: “the individual did commit the act but how can you blame him when you have treated us so badly?” Similarly, the opposing group might pick faults in any attempts to apologise based on their perceptions of the group, especially if trust is low: “How can we trust anything that those people say? They are all liars anyway.” A refusal to apologise might also be as seen as ‘typical’ behaviour of a certain group.

The leader is usually unaware of their own responses. They are simply doing what is instinctive in ensuring the survival of the group and their credibility, especially if the group is deeply linked to self- identity. They are, however, aware of the group’s norms and what it would find acceptable so whilst a leader might see the benefit of apologising, this may not be seen by the rest of the group.

For leaders to act differently, they need to change their own ingrained attitudes and the first step is by becoming aware of how groups act and engage in conflict. This is also important because group members tend to ignore information that contradicts their attitudes or do not explore information or views from the other side because it would threaten attitudes that are linked to one’s own identity.[2]

What An Apology Does

Between groups, it’s main function is to de-escalate conflict and prevent the need for revenge. [3] It does this by humanizing both groups and this can be difficult for leaders when attitudes of both groups are so polarised that they cannot see them as a collection of human beings with needs and emotions. We see this especially in extreme right-wing groups when people of a different religion or ethnicity are portrayed as sub-human.

Group members could feel loss, shame, inferiority, humiliation and betrayal when leaders abandon this view, regardless of their intentions. In humanizing both groups, a leader is admitting to the other that they take responsibility for an error. They express regret for it and undertake never to commit the same mistake again. A sincere apology acknowledges the suffering of the other group and sends out a clear message about what the group and the leader stand for.

Tips For Leaders Thinking About Apologising

As I have written about before, different conflicts will require different types of styles and it will involve different considerations to take into account. One of those could be the group dynamic.

If you do decide to apologise or are asked to do so, here are a few tips.

  1. Limit the apology only to the act. This could be useful if there is a complex conflict meaning that you are differentiating the individual act from the wider conflict. In other words, you are saying sorry for a particularly offensive act but you are not saying that you are in general, incompetent etc.
  2. Ensure that the time is right. Timing is very important when issuing an apology. Companies and governments are often criticised for failing to apologise quickly enough and on the other hand, apologising for an historic act will allow you to demonstrate that a new leadership will ensure a better future relationship.
  3. Think about the legal implications of an apology. It might be worth getting legal advice or the authority to issue an apology where you think it necessary. This is ultimately a judgement call but that’s what leaders are there for.
  4. What Is the Message You Want to Communicate? Think about how you want to apologise and the future you want with the other group in consequence. What are you hoping to achieve out of it? How will it be perceived?

Apologies, done well, can build trust and craft new relationships which create a better future and more constructive outcomes. When done badly or not at all, they simply reinforce negative ideas about a group and a leader that can lead to tensions and further conflict. It’s never easy to change long-standing attitudes but becoming aware of them is the first step to take if you want to make real changes to your group at whatever level. That’s where a mediator can help!

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know!


[1] Roger Conner and Patricia Jordan, “ Never Being Able to Say You’re Sorry: Barriers To Apology By Leaders In Group Conflict” (2009) Law & Contemp. Probs (72) 233

[2] ibid

[3] Ken-Ichi Ohbuchi, Masuyo Kameda and Nariyuki Agarie, “ Apology as Aggression Control: Its Role in Mediating Appraisal of and Response to Harm” (1989) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (56) (2) 219-227

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