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For a leader, a public apology is always a high-risk move. Understanding what apologies can and cannot do will help you avoid both foolhardy stonewalling and unnecessary contrition. When corporate leaders or the organizations they represent mess up, they face the difficult decision of whether or not to apologize publicly. A public apology is a risky move. Refusal to apologize can be smart, or it can be suicidal.
Readiness to apologize can be seen as a of character or one of weakness.
The body is not an apology
Since the stakes are so high, Kellerman says, leaders should not extend public apologies often or lightly. One or more of the following conditions should apply:. The author draws her conclusions from hard data and abundant anecdotal evidence, examining notoriously bad apologizers as well as exceptionally good ones. While selectivity is key, good apologies usually do work. What constitutes a good apology?
Acknowledgment of the mistake or wrongdoing, acceptance of responsibility, expression of regret, and assurance that the offense will not be repeated. When we wrong someone we know, even unintentionally, we are generally expected to apologize.
The person we hurt feels entitled to an admission of error and an expression of regret. Leaders are responsible not only for their own behavior but also for that of their followers, who might in the hundreds, thousands, or even millions. The first question, then, is, Who exactly is the guilty party? The degree of damage is an issue as well.
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When a leader feels obliged to apologize, especially for a trespass in which followers were involved, the harm inflicted was likely serious, widespread, and enduring. Since leaders speak for, as well as to, their followers, their apologies have broad implications.
The act of apology is carried out not merely at the level of the individual but also at the level of the institution. It is not only personal but also political. It is a performance in which every expression matters and every word becomes part of the public record. For leaders to apologize publicly is therefore a high-stakes move: for themselves, for their followers, and for the organizations they represent. Conversely, readiness to apologize can be seen as a of strong character or as a of weakness.
A successful apology can turn enmity into personal and organizational triumph—while an apology that is too little, too late, or too transparently tactical can bring on individual and institutional ruin. The question of whether leaders should apologize publicly has never been more urgent. During the last decade or so, the United States in particular has developed an apology culture—apologies of all kinds and for all sorts of transgressions are extended far more frequently than before.
Members of various professions hardly known in the past as exemplars of humility have begun to discuss what role apology plays in their professional practice. Many physicians, for instance, now at least consider apologizing to a patient for a medical mistake; and within the medical profession generally, there is discussion about when an apology is in order.
In addition, new laws have made it ificantly easier for medical providers to apologize to their patients. While, in the past, fear of a malpractice suit nearly always precluded health care providers from admitting a mistake, University of Florida law professor Jonathan R.
The rise in the of leaders publicly apologizing has been especially remarkable. Apologies are a tactic leaders now frequently use in an attempt to put behind them, at minimal cost, the errors of their ways. Since then, the pattern has continued. Sometimes leaders even apologize for sins to which they personally have no connection. On a state Dominant woman im sorry to Poland inGerman chancellor Willy Brandt extended a wordless apology for crimes committed three decades earlier by the Nazis against Polish Jews.
Apparently filled with emotion, Brandt dropped to his knees as he approached a Warsaw war memorial. And just recently, inKen Thompson, chairman and CEO of Wachovia, revealed that two of its acquired companies had owned slaves. We are deeply saddened by these findings. Leaders outside the corporate world have also been doing an impressive amount of breast-beating. In the last several years, former U. Republican U. Having created a firestorm, on campus and beyond, the president apologized again and again. I Dominant woman im sorry regret the backlash directed against individuals who have taken issue with aspects of what I said.
Obviously, it is impossible to know whether a prompt expression of regret would have forestalled the firestorm, which led to his reation, effective at the end of June Of course, apologies are like everything else: They reflect the cultures within which they are embedded. While the methods may differ—China has apology companies that employ surrogates to provide explanations and express remorse—the apology culture is a global phenomenon. Why do we apologize? Why do we ever put ourselves in situations likely to be difficult, humiliating, and even risky?
Leaders who apologize publicly are especially vulnerable. They are highly visible. They are expected to appear strong and competent. And whenever they make public statements of any kind, their individual and institutional reputations are at stake. Clearly, then, leaders should not apologize often or lightly. For a leader to express contrition, there needs to be a good, strong reason. After denying and procrastinating for months, President Bill Clinton decided that if he wanted to get back on task, he had no choice but to offer an abject public apology—and a televised one, at that—for having had an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
He began by admitting his involvement with the White House intern. Given the temper of the times, given the Dominant woman im sorry culture, the president concluded that his path to forgiveness and redemption was to offer as full and open an apology as the already humiliating circumstances would allow. In this case, Clinton was taking responsibility for his own bad behavior.
In contrast, when M. As is often the case when people have come to feel aggrieved, Ivester made his real mistake at the beginning. Initially, he and company executives based in Brussels played down the problem. Only in response to the growing public outcry—and, more importantly, to the bans placed on Coke products by the governments of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg—did Ivester relent. Up against the wall, he finally promised to investigate the problem thoroughly.
And he finally apologized.
Before it was all over, Ivester had declared consumer trust sacred to Coca-Cola, and company executives were described as deeply regretting the problems encountered by their European customers. Clearly concluding that the greater the his expressions of remorse, the more likely Coca-Cola would be forgiven, Ivester ended up issuing one of the most elaborate public apologies ever offered by an American chief executive.
Ironically, the best evidence from subsequent investigations is that the reported illnesses were the result of mass hysteria rather than contaminated Coca-Cola. Many of the children who complained of becoming sick had not drunk Coke that day.
In fact, he stepped down from his position as CEO just two years after assuming the post. As the examples of both Clinton and Ivester testify, in general leaders apologize only if and when they feel a pressing political need to do so. Still, there are exceptions to this rule. Sometimes leaders apologize when their self-interest is not immediately at stake—when the only apparent reason for doing so is genuine remorse and regret.
Once again, President Clinton provides a case in point. Inhe apologized for the genocide in Rwanda, which had taken place four years earlier, on his watch. It was made to assume some responsibility for the wrongdoing and to admonish the international community never again to stand by and do nearly nothing in the face of mass murder.
There are four possible answers, then, to the question of why a leader would endure the discomfort and assume the risk of offering a public apology. That is, apologies can serve four purposes:.
The leader made a mistake or committed a wrongdoing. The leader publicly apologizes to encourage followers to forgive and forget.
One or more persons in the group for which the leader is responsible made a mistake or committed a wrongdoing. One or more persons in the group for which the leader is responsible made a mistake or committed a wrongdoing that inflicted harm on one or more persons on the outside. The leader publicly apologizes to repair relations with injured parties. The leader experiences genuine remorse for a mistake made or a wrongdoing committed, either individually or institutionally.
The leader publicly apologizes to ask forgiveness and seek redemption. The first three purposes are primarily strategic and rooted in self-interest. The last purpose is primarily authentic: An apology is extended because it is the right thing to do. As a general principle, leaders should apologize only if doing so serves one of these purposes.
To acknowledge a transgression, seek forgiveness, and make things right is a complex act.
Apologies are prompted by fear, guilt, and love—and by the calculation of personal or professional gain. They are shaped by culture, context, and gender.
They are base and self-serving or generous and high-minded. And when extended in public, they amount to performances to which different audiences react in different ways. Moreover, there is a fundamental distinction to be made between an apology offered on behalf of an individual and one made on behalf of an institution. This distinction matters especially in the West, where people expect more from the first type than from the second. Individuals unwilling to apologize when an apology is in order are subject to censure and opprobrium. Institutions, such as large corporations, are not ordinarily bound by this same stringent moral imperative.
Above all, a good apology must be seen as genuine, as an honest appeal for forgiveness.
Such apologies are usually best offered in a timely manner, and they consist of the following four parts: an acknowledgment of the mistake or wrongdoing, the acceptance of responsibility, an expression of regret, and a promise that the offense will not be repeated. Although the case is about a quarter-century old, it is still considered a near-perfect example of what a leader should do when things go wrong.