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Why powerful people should apologize more often and better

Lessons from the Ravindra Gaikwad Incident in India

By Jayanth Narayanan

The recent scandal involving Ravindra Gaikwad, the Indian Member of Parliament who made headlines after an alleged assault on an Air India Employee for being asked to take an economy instead of a business class seat, is a telling story of the pitfalls and strengths of apologies by people in positions of power.

After Gaikwad refused to apologize for mistreating the airline employee, in a rather bold move, Gaikwad was banned from flying by the airline. Then in a show of solidarity across the industry, all airlines in the country banned him from flying.

Even as Air India demanded an apology, Gaikwad refused to accept any allegation of wrongdoing even though the overwhelming national opinion on the basis of leaked videos was against him.

Meanwhile the MP tried to circumvent the ban only to have his flight tickets cancelled by all the airlines repeatedly.

This unfolded on national news and was accompanied by a collective public outpouring of loathing for people in positions of power who feel a sense of entitlement. Predictably, the Twitterati had a field day tweeting various memes about the politician and his travels on railways.

With pressure mounting from all quarters, Gaikwad sent a letter to the Ministry of civil aviation. The letter was cleverly worded to not be a genuine apology. The ministry then successfully asked the airlines to withdraw the ban.

This incident offers us many lessons about how power affects people’s ability to apologize. Power brings with it a sense of entitlement. In the human species as societies strive for egalitarian ideals, one way we have kept this in check is to create a reverse dominance hierarchy where the powerful are brought down when they overstep their power, as shown in the work of Chris Boehm.

Power also creates a dynamic around apology following a transgression. The powerful are often reluctant to apologize even though apologies of the powerful are valued even more. This means that when the powerful genuinely apologize, people are even more likely to forgive them. My research in collaboration with Zheng Xue, a former student of mine and now an academic in China demonstrated this effect in a series of lab studies.

Why does power make people reluctant to apologize and even when they do, why don’t they do it effectively?

The answer for this question comes from a complex set of psychological processes that get triggered by being in power. Power makes people self-focused and increases their lack of perspective of others. In two decades of research on power, Adam Galinsky from Columbia Business School (see his latest NPR episode on the topic here) has shown that power reduces people’s ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. This leads them to not see the hurt they cause others. This blinds them to even see the need for an apology.

The letter that Gaikwad sent to the ministry of civil aviation is a perfect example of how the powerful find it difficult to genuinely apologize. The apology is rife with distancing language and a refusal to admit guilt. For example, it conveys regret over an unfortunate incident that happened. There is little evidence of guilt or repentance. When perpetrators admit guilt and repent their actions, victims are more likely to reciprocate with forgiveness. The purpose of Gaikwad’s letter does not seem to be to seek forgiveness from the Air India staffer, but to simply start flying again as this was causing Gaikwad inconvenience.

The letter did provide the management of the national carrier in India to find a “face-saving” way to allow the member of parliament to fly again. They needed to find something that sounded like an apology to ensure that it does not look like they were browbeaten by the powerful politicians to let a member of parliament get away with an alleged assault on their staff. However, the manner in which Air India top management handled these events has rightfully given them a lot of goodwill.

Although this episode and my analysis of it has painted a grim picture of power, history is replete with men and women of greatness who have used power wisely. Although power comes with a tendency to corrupt, a socialized and empathetic expression of power is possible. When people seek power with an objective to serve others and make the world a better place, the sense of entitlement is often replaced by a sense of responsibility.

If you are powerful and you have committed a transgression, you have to remember that the odds are stacked in your favor for the victim to forgive you provided you genuinely apologize with admission of guilt, demonstration of remorse and seeking to set the situation right.

Jay Narayanan is Professor of Organizational Behavior and Leadership at IMD. He teaches in the Orchestrating Winning Performance program & the Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives.

Why powerful people should apologize more often and better

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