Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Art of the Apology

Done right, an apology can enhance both reputations and relationships. Done wrong, an apology can compound the original mistake, sometimes to disastrous consequences.

Most of us were taught that offering an apology, any apology, when we make a mistake will take care of most offenses. But offering the right apology, particularly in the corporate world, is not as simple as saying, “I’m sorry.”

Done right, an apology can enhance both reputations and relationships. Done wrong, an apology can compound the original mistake, sometimes to disastrous consequences.

Consider, for instance, a senior member of an executive team who became angry when a junior vice president opposed him in a meeting and refused to change her position. He lashed out at her in front of the group, sarcastically questioning her intelligence and her commitment to the company in difficult times. When other members of the team told him he should apologize, he balked, thereby making matters worse. “I’m sorry she’s upset, but I didn’t do anything wrong—she’s got to learn to take the heat,” he declared.

When the offender is embarrassed and worried about losing face, this kind of sidestepping can take place. But, in fact, offering an apology is not a sign of weakness, nor does it amount to backing down. On the contrary, offering an apology can be a potent reputation enhancer.

Apologies matter for two reasons. First, they mend relationships. When an offense has torn the fabric of a relationship, an apology is a stage in its repair. Second, apologies mend the transgressor’s reputation. Following an offense, some people—not just the offended but all who know about the affront—may have concerns and doubts about the transgressor and even question his character. An effective apology can reassure people that the transgression is understood and not likely to be repeated.

What gets in the way
Too often companies, as well as individuals, miss the opportunity to reap the good that an apology can provide. In early 2002, NSTAR, a New England public utility, admitted it had improperly moved nearly 24,000 of its electric customers to the “default” service category—a much more expensive service option—without those customers’ knowledge. NSTAR apologized “for any inconvenience.”

But were NSTAR customers, and the public, really concerned about inconvenience? Of course they weren’t. When the story became news, customers and the public saw double-speak and deceit, and NSTAR’s credibility fell. The misdirected apology the company offered only sent the public’s opinion lower.

Mending fences is not only the right thing to do on a personal level, it also makes good business sense. So why do so many people and institutions fail at it?

To start with, most people find being in the wrong to be embarrassing. And when they are embarrassed, they may go into denial and try to minimize the offense, as NSTAR did. In other cases, the offender may try to blame the victim, as the senior executive did with the junior vice president.

Even if an apology is offered, it may be unrecognizable as such because the embarrassment or anger of the person giving the apology distorts it. This can be a disastrous mistake; credibility, once lost, is very hard to gain back.

Three sides to an apology
So how do you build a good apology? Apologies involve three elements: Acknowledgment of a fault or an offense, regret for it, and responsibility for the offense. You can put them all together, but a sincere, effective apology need not necessarily express all three; whether it should depends on the circumstances.

Because we don’t separate out acknowledgment, regret, and responsibility, we are often at sea, finding it unnecessarily painful to apologize when it would actually be reasonably easy to do so. Instead of getting caught up in blame, we can acknowledge another’s anger or dismay, or regret an offense, even when we don’t feel responsible for a wrong.

Do’s and don’ts

1 Find words that are clear and accurate—not provocative. A good apology should make the person wronged think, “Yes, she understands.” Often what the offended person wants is accountability and vigilance; he wants to know that it won’t happen again.

2 Don’t apologize for the wrong thing. People and institutions tend to apologize for what they find forgivable, as in the NSTAR example. If there is no clear relationship between what the offender is apologizing for and what the offended experienced as the original wrong, the apology actually exacerbates the problem. At best, the offender will seem blind to the problem; at worst, he will be perceived as intentionally distorting it.

That gives the offended two problems: The original offense, and the sense that a similar offense is likely to occur. The offended party thinks, “How can I accept this apology? It makes me appear to be complicit in allowing the problem to happen again.”

3 Consider the angle of approach. Decide whether it will be easier for you to apologize position to position or person to person. If you are angry with the person you’ve got to apologize to, it may be easier to frame the apology in terms of your respective jobs or ranks.

For example, while the senior executive remains angry at the junior vice president, he can’t offer a sincere personal apology. But he could apologize to her as a senior administrator to a more junior colleague, from his position to hers. Example: “We both work for a good company, and, as your colleague, I should try harder to see past our individual differences. I’m sorry I spoke harshly.”

Such an apology is likely to resonate favorably with both parties, even when anger between them remains.

In other circumstances, a person-to-person apology is easier to offer. For someone who equates an apology with loss of stature, for instance, the person-to-person apology can appear to be a magnanimous act that does not diminish her. Example: “I can’t agree with the stance you are taking, but I like you and want us to work well together. I’m sorry I spoke harshly.”

Choose the approach that is easier for you to do well. That will save you from making an apology that is so grudging that it fails.

4 Don’t think in terms of an “expression of regret.” Instead, your goal should be actually communicating your regret, that is, getting it across to the other person. Expression is one-sided—as though one were getting an apology off one’s chest. Communication, however, occurs between people, and an apology needs to work well for the other person to be effective. Take the focus off yourself, and keep it on your counterpart and the three elements of an apology—acknowledgment, regret, and responsibility. That protects you from sounding defensive, and your apology will be better received.

5 “I want to apologize” is not an apology. It’s no more an apology than “I want to lose weight” is a loss of weight. Do the work. Deliver a clear, direct apology; don’t hide behind vagueness, circumlocution, or clichés.

You may not be able to control whether your apology is accepted, but you can control its quality. So make every effort to control what you can. This will increase your chances of feeling good about what you have done with your apology—instead of feeling bad about having to do it.

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