The Art of the Apology

Wednesday, August 21, 2013 - 07:56

By Leon Gettler

With apologies to Elton John, sorry is not the hardest word. But for managers, apologies are a tricky business. A good apology can defuse customer and investor anger. But it can also strengthen negative associations between the brand and the problem — particularly if there is the threat of litigation or if the issue is politically charged. A good apology can also defuse unfortunate incidents in the workplace, from bullying to inappropriate jokes. But a lot of managers seem to struggle with it.

As I write in Management Today, the managers’ apology is all about restoring trust. And apologies can only work if they follow the four Rs:

  • Responsibility (where the person takes complete responsibility for the offence or misdeed)
  • Remorse (where they actually say sorry)
  • Restitution (where they identify the steps they’ll take to reverse the damage)
  • Repetition (where they stress they will not repeat the offence).

Those rules are the same for every case, whether it’s an apology to a customer or client, or to an employee.

Bill Rosenthal in Management Issues says the apology is one skill managers need to learn because it neutralises problems that could hurt the organisation.

“Apologising isn’t easy,’’ Rosenthal writes. “It’s essential to apologise whenever you feel you’re at fault, though. Good managers are able to do it well. They don’t count on the power of their position to steamroll over those who may feel offended. Instead they use the apology as a way to earnestly make amends, turn adversity into advantage and demonstrate their sensitivity and fairness.”

Or as Eric Basu explains in Forbes, managers will make mistakes. The ability to retain the respect of one’s team and peers is contingent upon the willingness of the leader to accept responsibility for those mistakes directly to the people who were affected.
“If you want to lead and manage well, you need to have the respect of the people to whom you provide direction and guidance,’’ Basu writes. “If all of your actions are done around the premise of ensure that you never receive blame for any mistakes that are made, your ability to gain that respect will be likely be unachievable.’’

For those who feel that an apology is like swallowing a sword, business experts have several tips. Managers have to clearly say they’re sorry. They have to identify what they did wrong, acknowledge how the other person must be feeling, express sincere regret and promise not to do it again.

Also, they should eliminate the word “if” (as in “I’m sorry if I offended you”). Apologies also have a “best-before” date: delaying an apology spoils its positive impact. Those who apologise even before a situation is discovered, boost their authenticity in the eyes of others.

Make it brief and to the point. The longer you talk, the more you’re likely to weaken the impact of your apology. And it might be worth doing a cost-benefit analysis of the apology. It really comes down to whether you value the relationship more than the need to be right.