Want a higher paycheck? Say you're sorry

People earning over $100,000 a year are almost twice as likely to apologize after an argument or mistake as those earning $25,000 or less, Fortune's Anne Fisher reports.

By Anne Fisher, FORTUNE senior writer

(Fortune) -- Market research can be full of surprises. Sometimes, in seeking to find out one thing, researchers turn up a whole different set of unexpected conclusions. Consider: A few months ago, online pearl merchants The Pearl Outlet (www.thepearloutlet.com) noticed that a growing number of customers, when asked the reason for their pearl purchases, replied that the baubles were given as an apology, usually to a wife or girlfriend. Intrigued, The Pearl Outlet hired pollsters Zogby International (www.zogby.com) to find out more.

When Zogby's researchers queried 7,590 Americans, both male and female, they discovered that people who are more willing to say "I'm sorry" make more money than people who rarely or never apologize.

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People earning over $100,000 a year are almost twice as likely to apologize after an argument or mistake as those earning $25,000 or less, the survey found. Respondents were asked to identify themselves as belonging to one of a set of income ranges. They were also asked whether they would apologize in three situations: when they felt they were entirely to blame for a problem; when they thought they were only partly at fault; and when they believed they were blameless.

In all three cases, "a person's willingness to apologize was an almost perfect predictor of their place on the income ladder," the study says.

More than nine out of ten (92%) of $100,000+ earners apologize when they believe they're to blame, compared to 89% of people earning between $75,000 and $100,000, 84% of those who make $50,000 to $75,000, 72% of those earning between $35,000 and $50,000, and 76% of people earning between $25,000 and $35,000. Among survey respondents who make $25,000 or less, just 52% say they usually apologize when they know they're at fault.

And think about this: Even when they believe themselves to be completely blameless, 22% of the highest earners say "I'm sorry," compared to just 13% of those in the lowest income group.

Any statistician will tell you that so direct and consistent a correlation between behavior and income is extremely rare, but what does it mean? Should you practice groveling if you want to make more money? Well, no.

But saying "Oops, I'm sorry" now and then is an indicator of strong people skills, essential for moving up in almost any organization. The link between income and willingness to apologize "shows that successful people are willing to learn from their mistakes and are keen on mending troubled relationships," says British business coach Peter Shaw.

Terry Shepherd, president of The Pearl Outlet, has his own theory: "Maybe high earners apologize more because, as someone once said, it's easier to apologize afterward than to ask permission beforehand - and high earners tend to ask permission less."

Still another possible explanation, according to Marty Nemko, Ph.D., author of Cool Careers for Dummies (For Dummies, $19.99): "High earners tend to be more secure" and less likely to go on the defensive when challenged or criticized. "They realize when they're wrong and know it won't hurt their career much to apologize."

Indeed, taking the high road - acknowledging one's share of blame, or even accepting some blame when it isn't justified - is a trait shared by many great leaders, because it tends to build solidarity with the troops.

Readers, what do you think? Has a well-timed apology at work (or the lack of one) ever had an impact on your career - or changed your opinion of a boss? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. Top of page