The Art of the Non Apology

Monday, April 1, 2013 - 11:55

You would think a simple word such as sorry would be easy to say, but some people still struggle to get it out – and if they do, they sound insincere. By Leon Gettler

Most apologies from managers and people in public life are not well considered.

We are now in the era of the non-apology apology, what New York Times writer William Schneider called the "past exonerative", where people seem to apologise without taking responsibility (as in "I'm sorry if what I said offended you").

Two recent cases were Lance Armstrong and Alan Jones. What do they have to do with management? Only that managers also seem to struggle with apologies. They can learn from the mistakes of those two celebrities.

The vitriolic public response to Armstrong and Jones, both in the mainstream and social media, tells us the corporate mea culpa will be an enormous issue for managers who run into trouble when they mishandle people, inadvertently bully them, overload them with work, chew them out in public or just say the wrong thing.

As psychiatrist Aaron Lazare says in his book On Apology, public apologies are demanded more now because the global village has more connections and layers. The same applies to companies where managers work. The apology has become a crucial issue for managers.

The Jones apology for claiming Julia Gillard's father died of shame was a classic case of the past exonerative. It was filled with caveats, claiming his remarks were "off the cuff", that he had no intention of quitting his post as 2GB's breakfast presenter, and then renewing his fierce attacks on Gillard.

Armstrong offered a more or less contrite explanation of his difficulties that led him to take performance- enhancing drugs to win his seven Tour de France titles and act as a bully. It was not a heartfelt public apology. He displayed some self-awareness and expressed regret, but he expressed remorse only once.

"I am sitting here to acknowledge [my faults] and to say I'm sorry," he said. That was the only time he used the S-word. He apologised for lying about the doping, not the doping itself. It was half-hearted.

It's a lesson for managers. Of course, apologies are often required in the workplace. Hurtful and inappropriate comments may be made; people may be bullied, treated unfairly or loaded with too much work. Unfortunately, many managers suffer the same problem as Jones and Armstrong.

For apologies to work, there have to be 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).

Carmel Ackerly, acting CEO of the Australian Institute of Management - Victoria & Tasmania, says apologies are important for maintaining trust in organisations. Trust is shattered when things go wrong, people are aggrieved and there is no apology or acknowledgement.

"The whole thing about why managers need to say sorry is related to trust in the workplace,'' Ackerly says. "Once you lose trust, it is so hard to regain. Trust is critical to culture, to staff engagement and to a happy workplace, which drives productivity and the bottom line. Once that's broken, you lose the relationships upon which culture is based.

"If I'm your worker and you're my leader, and there has been some incident and you don't admit a wrongdoing, then how could I trust you, how could I work for you, how can I be loyal and build that relationship where we actually do good in the future where I would continue to work for you and give you my all?

"I need to trust you will support me, that you will create a bonding culture where we can both produce.

"What's critical is the ability of managers to apologise has to be part of the culture. It's not a question of training managers to apologise, it's more about creating a culture where it's accepted mistakes will be made, acknowledged and learnt from. It's about risk mitigation and managers need to be a role model.

"Sorry should just be part of leadership. We should create a culture where it's OK to make mistakes and we learn from them."

Psychologist Eve Ash says saying sorry is a key skill.

"When I work with managers and they are giving feedback to staff, I say to them, 'Accept some responsibility for why the person is behaving like that'."

She says the apology will become even more important in organisations over the next few years.

"It has come up as an issue, especially as more issues come up, like bullying, for example, and inappropriate jokes and things like that,'' Ash says.

"The counterpart to that is learning to prevent it escalating, to prevent it being a major HR issue. At the earliest phase, it can be about people being assertive and then other people responding with an apology. It can break down to a core skill that can help prevent some of the more explosive things from happening because things aren't dealt with early. It's almost a risk-management strategy."

An apology from a manager or leader is an art. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Barbara Kellerman, from Harvard University's Kennedy school of government, says apologies should only be extended when they serve an important purpose, when the offence is serious, when the leader should assume responsibility, when no one else can do it and when the cost of saying something is likely to be lower than the cost of saying nothing.

"Unless one or more of these conditions pertain, there is no good reason for leaders to apologise," she says.

"An apology that is misguided or ill-conceived can actually do more harm than good. Similarly, when an apology is called for, but none is given, anger and hurt can fester and difficulties may escalate."

She says leaders can accept responsibility and express regret.

Kellerman presents a list of questions for managers to consider: what function would the apology serve, who benefits, why would an apology matter (for strategic reasons? moral reasons?), what happens when the apology is made – would it placate the injured parties and hasten resolution, will an apology create legal problems, what happens if you don't apologise – will the problem fade, and will a refusal to apologise make it worse?

The bottom line: will it affect the business or not? And in this uber-connected world, it's more than likely that it will. That is why the apology is a core management skill.