Rae’s Reflections – The Power of an Apology

When we do something wrong, often we focus so much on fixing the problem that we forget to say sorry.

I have worked in complaints for many years, and one of the key lessons I have learned is the power of an apology. I’ve learned that something as simple as an apology can reduce the anger and distress people may be feeling. It supports continued or improved positive and respectful relationships between the service provider and a complainant. In short, it helps to quickly resolve most complaints!

In 2013, the NSW Deputy Ombudsman Chris Wheeler argued that the importance and potential effectiveness of appropriate apologies has been overshadowed by “the litigious nature of our society generally and the innate caution of lawyers (resulting) in apologies being associated more and more in people’s minds with unacceptable risk taking”. He said, “It is well past the time that we reverse this trend and recognise that the giving of apologies is not only the ethically and morally right thing to do when mistakes for which we are responsible have caused harm, but also in a very practical sense a very powerful risk management tool”.

I agree.  For a service provider, saying sorry when something has gone wrong  is the right thing to do morally, and it’s the right thing to do for your organisation. When people approach us with complaints, we often see that an early acknowledgement of a failure in care and a good apology goes a very long way to taking the heat out of these issues, allowing the parties to focus on resolving them.

A good apology is not an automatic admission of guilt and nor is it laying blame. It is simply a recognition that the service provided has not met expectations and things could have been done better.

Not all issues can be resolved with a simple sorry, but that doesn’t mean that an apology shouldn’t happen. We all want a problem to be resolved and then an apology to admit a mistake was made.

When the single aged care quality framework replaces the current accreditation and quality standards next year, service providers will have to demonstrate that they practice open disclosure when things go wrong. This means not just telling people about what has occurred, but also saying sorry.

Australian hospitals and health services are already required to do this and aged care should be no different. Aged care is a growth industry and we need to weave into that industry a culture that quickly says sorry when things go wrong, before it’s too late to apologise.

Rae Lamb, Aged Care Complaints Commissioner

17 August 2017