On Apology

Photo by KiraKalina

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.
” Paul Boese

A significant increase in public apologies over the past months could be seen as a positive trend.

We saw the most senior leader of this country apologizing to the American public: “I screwed up.” We watched two prominent athletes A-Rod and Michael Phelps issue painful apologies to their fans.

We saw four bosses of British banks saying sorry to the Treasury Select Committee, and watched Japan’s Finance Minister announce his resignation along with a formal mea culpa.

And finally, in the last couple of weeks we heard the words of regret from Rupert Murdoch and Bishop Richard Williamson.

And yet many of these highly visible apologies failed to earn public forgiveness. Some were criticized for being too shallow and insincere, others could be hardly recognized as apologies at all.

So, what does it take to make an effective apology that comes across as true and genuine? And what are some examples of ineffective apologies that failed to resolve conflicts or earn forgiveness?

To start, an apology should come right after the offending behavior is committed:

1. A reckless or deliberate action that hurts somebody or causes harm. In this case, the offender should apologize for his or her behavior.

2. Negative consequences of something insensitive that someone said or did – from misinterpretation of a statement to a genuinely inconsiderate or offensive comment. In this case, people should apologize not merely for the behavior but also for the negative consequences.

3. An innocent error that has been promptly corrected. In this case, people should apologize for an error itself and any negative consequences that already happened as a result of this error.

When apologizing for behavior, the effectiveness of an apology increases if the offender admits of wrongdoing and takes full responsibility for his actions. So, an effective apology would sound like this:
“I’m sorry for what I’ve done, I knew it was wrong and I take responsibility for my actions.”

An apology’s effectiveness diminishes if the offender denies personal responsibility and fails to admit that he could have chosen any other way. According to the study published in the 2004 Journal of Management by three Ohio State University professors R. J. Lewicki, E. C. Tomlinson, Br.R. Dineen the least effective apologies are the apologies in which people avoid taking responsibility for their misdeeds and instead shift blame to other parties, blame circumstances, or say that they didn’t have any choice.

When apologizing for negative consequences, the effectiveness of an apology increases if the offender fully admits that his wrongdoing resulted in the negative consequences and he takes full responsibility not only for his behavior but for the result as well. On top of that, the confessor should demonstrate commitment to do whatever it takes to clean up his act and fix the problem. Here is an example of an effective apology:
“I admit that my actions led to the negative consequences and I’m deeply sorry. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to make things right.”
An apology’s effectiveness diminishes if the offender only partially admits his guilt, blames circumstances or fails to demonstrate commitment to fix the problem.

And finally, when apologizing for an error, the effectiveness of an apology increases if the offender apologizes for an error itself and for a failure to correct it promptly. Example of an effective apology:
“I apologize to everyone who was offended by my error which was not intended to be hurtful or malicious in any way and I’m terribly sorry for causing any harm or disruption. I wish I could have corrected it earlier and for that I’m sorry too.”

Some thought leaders in the field of apology strongly advise the confessor to provide explanations to the public about the offense committed, demonstrate key learnings, and recognize what he would do differently in the future.

One of the acknowledged leaders in the field of apology, Lee Taft offers a 5-step process to obtain forgiveness. His model includes the following steps:
– expressing remorse
– giving explanation of the mistake made
– issuing a verbal apology
– providing accommodation
– summarizing lessons learned

Lee Taft’s model is an effective tool that helps facilitating reconciliation and restoring relationships between two or more parties. For more information see Lee Taft’s website.

Another model that I find helpful was formulated by James E. Lukaszewski and is an 8-step process:
1. Candor
2. Explanation
3. Affirmation
4. Declaration
5. Contrition
6. Consultation
7. Promise
8. Restitution

What’s interesting about both Lukaszewski’s and Taft’s models is that they emphasize the importance of expressing true contrition about past misconduct. It’s not enough to express regret for how someone feels; to make a true apology a confessor should demonstrate an act of genuine contrition. Lukaszewski includes consultation and restitution as important ingredients for an effective mea culpa. Consultation is simply an ability of a confessor to ask for help from victims, government, or community to “help develop permanent solutions, acceptable behaviors, and approaches to preclude similar future problems.” Restitution or willingness of a confessor to remediate the problem is a critical final step to make an effective closing after issuing a verbal mea culpa.

The number of recipes for how to make a perfect apology is great, but they all come down to the following four ingredients:

1. Acknowledgment of wrongdoing
2. Expression of genuine remorse
3. Promise to not do it again
3. Restitution

Of course, many other factors like timing, medium, content and way of delivering an apology define whether an apology is effective or not. But I will leave that discussion for later posts.

Now, let’s have a closer look at some of the public apologies that we have recently witnessed to determine why some of them were effective in earning public forgiveness and others failed to do so.

Effective apologies:

1. A Classic Apology

Photo by jurvetson

Barak Obama’s apology over his handling of Tom Daschle’s nomination is a rare example of a classic apology when the confessor admits his mistake, expresses regret and provides reparation – all made with a great sense of humility.

The President of the United States confesses, “I’m here on television saying I screwed up and that’s part of the era of responsibility.”

See video.

2. A Dogeza-Style Apology

Xinhua/Reuters Photo

Xinhua/Reuters Photo

Japan’s Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa had to apologize and announce about his resignation after he came under fire over his inappropriate behavior at the G-7 press conference in Rome:

“My conduct at the press conference was the result of medicine and some wine. I apologize for that…..To take responsibility for the trouble I caused, I’d like to submit my resignation after passage of budget bills.”

In the best traditions of the Japanese, who spent centuries mastering the art of apology or dogeza, Nakagawa’s apology was just an overture to what then followed from Prime Minister Taro Aso.

Mr. Aso also apologized for Mr. Nakagawa’s resignation expressing regret and accepting responsibility:
“I feel it is quite regrettable that, while the fiscal 2009 budget is being discussed, the finance minister, who takes charge, has been replaced. The responsibility for appointing him to a Cabinet minister resides on me of course.”

3. A Genuine But Delayed Apology

When Rupert Murdoch apologized for an editorial cartoon published in The New York Post that ignited a national outcry from civil right leaders for being racist, most of the critics accepted his well-delivered apology.

Mr. Murdoch acknowledged the error and expressed regret for creating misinterpretations and confusion. But what’s most important, he promised the community to act more responsibly in the future.

Yet, Mr. Murdoch’s apology had one flaw – it could have come out earlier and preempted a week’s worth of public criticism and negative news cycles.

Here is an abstract:

“As the chairman of The New York Post, I am ultimately responsible for what is printed in its pages. The buck stops with me.
Last week, we made a mistake. We ran a cartoon that offended many people. Today I want to personally apologize to any reader who felt offended, and even insulted.
Over the past couple of days, I have spoken to a number of people and I now better understand the hurt this cartoon has caused. At the same time, I have had conversations with Post editors about the situation and I can assure you — without a doubt — that the only intent of that cartoon was to mock a badly written piece of legislation. It was not meant to be racist, but unfortunately, it was interpreted by many as such.
We all hold the readers of The New York Post in high regard and I promise you that we will seek to be more attuned to the sensitivities of our community.”

Ineffective apologies:

1. A Shallow Apology

Photo by Random Factor

Photo by Random Facto

Alex Rodriguez’s apology for using performance-enhancing drugs had all the potential to become an effective one – if only A-Rod could have accepted personal responsibility and not tried to justify his failure. After all, we all know that an apology can be ruined with an excuse. Here is an abstract:

“Back then it was a different culture. It was very loose. I was young. I was stupid. I was naïve. And I wanted to prove to everyone that I was worth being one of the greatest players of all time. I did take a banned substance, and for that I am very sorry and deeply regretful.”

2. A Half Apology

Photo by BBC

Photo by BBC

A half apology is often worse than no apology. The apology by former bosses of two major British banks, Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS, sounded more like a half apology to me.
The bankers expressed their regrets to the Treasury Select Committee, “We are profoundly and unreservedly sorry.”

Yet, they failed to explain what they did wrong and what they should be sorry for. See video.

3. A Repeated Apology

Photo by thaines

Photo by thaine

Here is an apology issued by Michael Phelps for a photo in British newspaper where he appears holding a marijuana pipe:
” I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I’m 23 years old and despite the successes I’ve had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again.”

It is almost a perfect apology with a genuinely expressed remorse, admission of wrongdoing and even promise to never do it again, which in the end earned him public forgiveness. Most of us admire the eight-time Olympic Gold medal winner and many were willing to forgive him because he had managed to build a strong positive image of a hero.

Sadly, this apology was his second apology in a row for similar lapses. According to the research by Tomlinson and Lewicki, repeated apologies may likely diminish the perceived effectiveness of an apology because the offender may not appear to be sincere in finding ways to reduce the frequency of the violations. Watch Phelps’s apology to Chinese fans.

4. An Insufficient Apology

Photo by BBC

Photo by BBC

An apology made by Bishop Richard Williamson over his rejection of the Nazi genocide caused a lot of controversy:

“The Holy Father and my Superior, Bishop Bernard Fellay, have requested that I reconsider the remarks I made on Swedish television four months ago, because their consequences have been so heavy.
Observing these consequences I can truthfully say that I regret having made such remarks, and that if I had known beforehand the full harm and hurt to which they would give rise, especially to the Church, but also to survivors and relatives of victims of injustice under the Third Reich, I would not have made them…..
However, the events of recent weeks and the advice of senior members of the Society of St. Pius X have persuaded me of my responsibility for much distress caused. To all souls that took honest scandal from what I said, before God I apologize.

The bishop failed to apologize adequately. He never admitted that his comments were wrong and unacceptable. Adding a conditional acknowledgment to his statement “if I had known.. the full harm and hurt, ….I would never made them” diminished the sincerity of the apology and left people wonder if Mr. Williamson had a true acknowledgment of his guilt. As a result, the Vatican rejected his apology and called it insufficient.

An ineffective and bogus apology can often do more harm by complicating the offenses and diminishing trust. This apology can lead to reputation deterioration, loss of trust and growing litigation costs.

A genuinely made apology, on the other hand, can help repair a damaged reputation, restore trust, rebuild relationships and reinforce values.
It would not magically wipe out the past but it can create more opportunities in the future.

I’ll go deeper into apologies in later post.
And, as always, I’m welcoming your thoughts and comments.

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Posted on: March 11, 2009
Posted by: Oxana

2 thoughts on “On Apology”

  1. John Kador says:

    Oxana,

    very nice article on apology. I’ve just published a new book called Effective Apology, in which I describe a 5-step model. My main thesis is that the willingness and the ability to apologize is a critical business skill for today’s leaders. I offer some suprising insights about the benefits of apology.

  2. Oxana Trush says:

    Thank you for your feedback, John.
    I’m looking forward to reading your book.

    In business a genuine apology can create a competitive advantage,reduce litigation costs and even save from lawsuits. And leaders’ willingness and ability to apologize are crucial in delivering a true and authentic apology.

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