We learn how to say “I’m sorry” as soon as we are old enough to speak, but our apologies often don’t get better with age.
Take a situation I experienced when I was out to dinner with a CEO colleague a few years ago. We are in a nice restaurant and each of us orders a glass of red wine. As the server is bringing the wine to us on a tray, he trips and both glasses fly at me and all over my brand new, very expensive, white shirt. I’m speechless, soaking wet and stained. The server immediately rushes off to get some soda water. When he returns, he’s obviously uncomfortable. He provides the manager’s business card and offers to pick up the cost of dry cleaning for my shirt. From that point on in the meal, he proceeded like nothing had happened, almost as if he kept ignoring it, the problem would go away.
I decide not to let this incident ruin my dinner, but later, when I get in the car to drive home, I start to ruminate about what happened. I keep playing the scene over and over in my mind. I just can’t seem to let it go, which isn’t like me at all. Sure, my shirt was ruined, but in the grand scheme of life, it’s not really that big of a deal. I finally realized what had me so unsettled – the server offered me an ineffective apology.
I’ve worked in the hospitality industry before so I know the first step should have been a sincere apology by the server, then the manager could have come over to offer to comp another round of wine, perhaps provide an extra dessert or even take care of the entire bill on the house. But none of this happened. There was no gesture made by the server or the restaurant to show there was any empathy for me, which is essential for a real apology. The server was uncomfortable and wanted to get out of the situation as quickly as possible, so he handled it poorly. Luckily, the cleaners were able to get the red wine stains out, and my shirt was like brand new again. It also provided a lesson in crafting ways to apologize appropriately for my executive coaching clients.
It’s About You Not Me
If you feel the need to apologize, you are acknowledging that you have done something to hurt, offend, anger, disappoint, upset or frustrate someone. So, the primary intention of your apology should be to ease the person’s pain and suffering. If your apology is powerful and true, you may also ease your own feelings of guilt or regret, which is a nice bonus.
But a successful apology needs to be focused on the other person, not you. This is the number one reason an apology can come across as insincere: there’s a misunderstanding about who should be the focus of the apology. You should be focused on trying to make someone else feel better, not yourself.
I talk about apologies in conjunction with accountability quite a lot with clients. Personal accountability means, among other things, you keep your promises. If you break a promise, or otherwise do something wrong, apologize. I cover the five-step process of authentically apologizing in my upcoming book Leading Lightly:
- State what you failed to do and apologize to everyone involved.
- Take full responsibility.
- Acknowledge the breakdowns you must have caused for others.
- Ask what actions can be taken to repair the damage that was done.
- Make a new promise, if appropriate.
Unfortunately, apologies aren’t necessarily something we hear often in corporate boardrooms. I have argued at length with clients trying to get them to understand that an apology can go a long way in building their personal brand, followership, resilience and overall mental fitness.
To this day, the best example of a corporate apology is Tylenol’s reaction to the poisonings in 1982. It was a moment that stood out to me back then before I was coaching accountability, and is still a powerful teaching moment today.
Crisis Management Model
For those of you who may be too young to remember, back in 1982, three people died in the Chicago area after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol in a poisoning spree that would eventually claim seven lives. The case has never been solved, so without a suspect, the public outrage could have fallen on Tylenol and its parent corporation, Johnson & Johnson. Instead, the company emerged as a victim themselves and put customer safety above profit in its response.
Johnson & Johnson quickly recalled all of its Tylenol products from store shelves nationwide, which cost them millions of dollars. It issued national warnings urging the public not to take Tylenol and established a hotline for customers. They also developed a tiered tamper-proof packaging including plastic bottle seals, foil seals and other features that made it obvious to a consumer if someone had attempted to open the package. The price of the increased safety measures was absorbed by the company and has become the standard today. The company even changed their pills from capsules to tablets with gelatin to make the pills themselves more difficult to alter.
James E. Burke was the CEO of Johnson & Johnson during this crisis and although he has since passed, he remains one of my favorite leaders because of his handling of the situation. He was coached by lawyers, his board of directors, investor relations, you name it, to not publicly apologize because that could be seen as acknowledging guilt. Here’s a five-minute video with Burke as he reflects on the crisis, including video from his own conference room as leaders of the company discuss how the situation should be handled. It’s worth a watch!
Burke also went to the national news outlets and major talk shows such as Donahue to discuss the situation. He admits the lawyers hated that he did this, but he trusted the media because he knew if the public was at stake, they would do the right thing.
Burke was dead right. How many of us have a bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol in our medicine cabinets today, forty years later? The reason we still have trust in that company is that the leader was so effective at apologizing and owning the situation. It’s a beautiful moment in corporate history among a slew of horrible moments.
Effective vs Ineffective Apologies
The public handling of the Tylenol poisonings, which is now a business lesson in crisis management, is a perfect example of an effective apology. Where so many of us err when making apologies is that we do the same mistakes over and over again. This happens in our personal relationships but also our professional relationships.
When you apologize too much and never correct the issue at hand, you erode the foundation of relationships. The integrity and trust is broken. I truly believe the effective apology is one of the most important and underused moves in the corporate world. When done sincerely, you heighten your brand, leadership skills and it even allows others to learn because you are modeling the correct behavior.