Don't Apologize Unless You Mean It

I stabbed a kid once.

We were cleaning gear from a Boy Scout campout in the Methodist church kitchen and Jon Perkins and I got to horsing around, at which point I picked up a butcher knife and pretended to terrorize him, chasing him around the room. He stopped short and the blade sank about a half-inch deep into the skin between his shoulder blades. I was mortified, and probably apologized a dozen times (breathlessly, I might add) as the Scoutmaster pondered disciplinary action.

Now, that incident made an impression on me and I never stabbed anyone again. But most apologies pass our lips and are quickly forgotten. You probably apologize to a spouse or close family member several times a week, but can you remember the situation?

My wife and I have a solid marriage of 31 years. But we have a fundamental disagreement about apologies. I will admit I’m the flawed one. I want to apologize and move on; she wants me to apologize, then demonstrate over time how I’m working to change my ways. I want the quick closure an apology brings. Check the box and move on. She has feelings (of course) and isn’t easily placated by the utterance of a few words in a solicitous tone of voice.

When it comes to politicians, CEOs, athletes and celebrities, the public seems to favor my wife’s point of view. A simple spoken apology is inadequate; we are loathe to forgive unless the person backs it up with action.

My personal favorite is “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.” Seriously, you’re going to make it conditional?

These forms of mea culpa do nothing more than provoke further outrage. Instead of dousing the fire with water, they add gasoline:

Lance Armstrong apologized, but failed to answer the question “Did you dope?” Grade: F.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie apologized multiple times, but has it changed anything? Grade: D-.
Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel apologized for allowing hackers to steal our personal data. I'm willing to give him an “Incomplete” because it’s too early to tell how effective the company’s remediation will be, and more will surely come out during litigation.

These tepid apologies fail to score points with the public, yes. But, they also offer a lesson of how not to do it.

Andrew Ross Sorkin and Dov Seidman are putting the offenders under the microscope. Sorkin, a New York Times writer and Seidman, an advisor to companies on how to operate “in a principled and profitable way,” have declared a moratorium on apologies until we get it right. No more apologies, they say, until public figures and their PR people accompany every apology with an explanation of the steps taken to correct the problem.

They’ve asked us (yes, you and me) to make a note next time we hear a public apology and check back over time to see if the person truly made good on their word. They’ve even suggested a “time out” (I know, it sounds like CEOs are children), a go-to-your-corner and think about it before you issue another apology.

You can read more about it here and here. Let’s see if the increased public scrutiny works.

My advice to a client is: Your apology has to be sincere. And, you’d better have a three-, four- or five-point plan for change and start acting on it. You can even regain lost credibility down the road by periodically pointing out the positive change you’ve made – whether it’s treating workers better, restoring impeccable accounting or resolving customer complaints.

To Jon Perkins, wherever you are: I’m glad that knife in the back didn’t damage our relationship. I can’t comment, however, on which is worse: a real knife in the back or a figurative one.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you. In the age of the "non-apology apology," it's all about sincerity and follow-through. The action plan seems to be an afterthought among public figures and corporate entities.

John Novaria said...

Jon, I don't know if it's haste, laziness or lack of foresight that prevents people and organizations from developing that action plan. Sure, it's hard work and probably a painful process. But is the tradeoff worth it when you have to endure long-term damage to reputation? Dov Charney writes most people “operate as though the purpose of an apology is to get out of something with the minimum pain and suffering possible.” Minimum pain and suffering. Sounds like a get out of jail free card.