Let’s stop the non-apology apology: the do’s and don’ts of “I’m sorry.”

I'm sorry graphic 4.12.17

It’s been a rough week for the people and companies issuing apologies. From Oscar Muñoz to Sean Spicer, the word “apology” seems to be a fixture on the news crawl.

The problem is that too often the apology isn’t an apology and the person saying it isn’t really apologizing. Rather, they are apologizers or apologists, justifying an unpopular or improper thing and excusing themselves from accountability. Or, they’ve spent so much time being apologizers and apologists previously that by the time they authentically apologize for the bone-headed move, it’s too late and their credibility is already eroded. Basically, in these moments, they stink at apologizing.

It shouldn’t be this difficult. Defending your boss or standing behind your employees is NOT an excuse for gross negligence in your job as a leader. It is not an excuse for passing the buck or trying to spin something awful. It is not an excuse for hurting the people you serve verbally or physically. There is very simply no excuse for it. Certainly not when there is disturbing video of a human being bloodied and likely unconscious in the aisle of one of your planes — on your watch, on the orders of your frontline employees. It’s not okay. Period. End of story. (Note: If your communications staffs suck at apologizing too and can’t help you do it better, it’s really time to restructure.)

In situations that require apologies — not in a case where you are defending a true and authentic cause — there are do’s and don’ts of apologizing. Here are the helpful definitions that may improve all these sad apologies we are seeing far too often.

Do this: 

a·pol·o·gy — A regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.

Say the words, tell people you regret what has happened and that you are holding yourself accountable for the mistake. Give them assurances the horrible thing won’t ever happen again. Do it quickly, do it definitively and follow your words up with transparent actions. Do think of an apology as something you owe your constituents, a tab that has to be settled for having the privilege of being a leader.

Don’t do this and don’t be this:

a·pol·o·gist — A person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial.

Don’t make excuses. Don’t try to justify the thing and make it seem like it wasn’t your fault. Don’t shift blame. Don’t spin it and think believers outnumber cynics. Don’t lash out at your critics. Don’t delay. Don’t swing and miss at the first apology and think you can hit a home run later. Don’t let your ego take over.

Some people believe that apologizing affects credibility in negative ways. That’s completely false.

Apologizing badly affects your credibility. Doing it right and authentically does build credibility and positively enhances your reputation. It makes you human and empathetic. I say it every day, and I mean it when I say it.

Apologizing is a muscle of humanity I try to exercise as often as I can.

Like any other skill, the more you practice apologizing, the better you get. The more you practice, the more you will find that the corrosive aspects of your ego get pushed into the back seat. Until people, companies and governments stop doing knuckle-headed things, we will have to learn to excel at apologizing. And that’s when we become more effective leaders and more civilized human beings.

Content Laboratory

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