I did not hear any of our political leaders apologize to the 800,000 federal workers they used as poker chips during the record government shutdown. As I thought about it, I couldn’t remember many other apologies for past political decisions either.
This made me wonder why more leaders don’t apologize and if they did, what made the apologies effective or not.
Why Do Most of Us Willingly Say, “I’m sorry?” If you have any level of empathy, it is naturally human to feel badly when your actions hurt someone else. Beginning at a very young age most of us are taught to offer repentance for any of our actions. Apologizing is one form of repentance.
Let’s be honest, apologizing can also be a selfish action. Why? Because when our actions hurt someone, we usually feel guilty. Apologizing reduces that feeling of guilt.
Most of our apologies are given to people close to us – people we have relationships with. We intuitively realize that when we hurt the other person, our relationship has been damaged. Their trust in us has been diminished. An effective apology can help rebuild that trust. More about that later.
Why Don’t We See More Leaders Apologize? In researching leadership apologies, there seem to be three reasons we don’t see very many. First, the people harmed by a leader’s decision do not have a close relationship with the leader – they are too far removed. Therefore the leader does not feel the loss of trust firsthand and is less compelled to feel the need to apologize.
Second, many leaders lack empathy or, at least, see it erode as they rise-up to the highest levels. They have learned how to use power to advance through the system and believe they have advanced because their decisions are good.
Finally, leaders often see the costs of an apology are too high.
Costs of Apologizing. The cost of apologizing for leaders can be substantial. A “cost” can be political or financial. If a political leader publicly apologizes to people harmed by a decision, he or she may be viewed as being weak. And, no doubt, they will see or hear their apology and weakness used against them in the next political campaign. Thus, their political advisers tell them not to apologize.
The most widely reported reason business leaders don’t apologize for mistakes, however, is financial. Financial damages or costs come from either legal action or a loss in reputation.
Last week I listened to a podcast called Apologetical on RadioLab. I learned that until recent years it has been widely known in legal circles that when a person or business says something like, “I’m sorry for this, it was my fault,” this can be used against them as an admission of guilt. Thus, most business leaders are advised never to admit they or their business did something wrong and to never apologize.
However, that began to change in 1986 when Massachusetts passed the first “I’m Sorry” law to protect individuals and organizations for apologizing. Now, over 30 states have some form of these laws on the books.
Research is showing that when businesses and organizations develop processes for letting leaders and employees personally apologize for harmful actions, the financial damages drop substantially. One interesting case described in the Apologetical podcast involved an infant death at Stanford’s Hospital. The outcome of this powerful example was that the mother did not sue the hospital and was later actually hired as a parental advocate. (The story starts at about 33 minutes into the podcast, if you are interested.)
How to Make an Effective Apology. Quite honestly I never think deeply about how to make an effective apology. Like most of you, I just do it. But then I listened to and read about business apologies in the article How to Optimize Your Apology published by Freakonomics, and I see helpful suggestions to apologize better.
According to Karen Cerulo, a cultural sociologist at Rutgers, we need to remember the purpose of an apology is to begin to rebuild trust. She goes on to say there are three things you don’t want to do as you consider an apology. First, don’t delay, do your apology quickly. The longer you wait, the deeper the resentment and the harder it becomes to reduce the harm felt.
Second, do not apologize for what people thought, apologize for your actions. Her example is if you hear yourself saying, “I’m sorry people misunderstood me,” that’s wrong.
Third, don’t use context to justify what you did, harmed parties don’t care. Context is when you try to explain what outside forces impacted your behavior.
Cerulo concludes by giving us a very simple three-step formula for constructing the most impactful apology. First, describe the harm done to the victim; this validates how the victim feels. Second, express how sorry you are. If you feel it will help your relationship, tell them why you are sorry. Finally, if possible, say what you are going to do to help rebuild the lost trust or mitigate the damage.
From my reading, I have one other piece of advice – remember to do what you say in step three. This is your “commitment” to the victim. If you don’t do this or you commit the same offense again, their level of trust in you drops further than if you did nothing.
And maybe that’s also why some leaders don’t apologize – they know what happened once will likely happen again.