Wednesday, September 23, 2015

On proper organizational apologies

When it comes to corporate or organizational apologies, I can generally tell that corporations and organizations aren't people. That's because they so often fail at apologies.

You need only walk into a Jimmy John's sandwich shop to be reminded of the proper form. As the sign says, proper apologies have three parts:
  1. What I did was wrong
  2. I feel badly that I hurt you
  3. How can I make this better?
It's worth noting that none of these statements start with or emphasize "you," but focus on "I," the person who is to apologize. Not included are things like "I'm sorry you took offense," an awful way of pretending to apologize by blaming the hurt party.

Some organizations shudder at saying any of these things. Admit wrongdoing? Admit feeling bad, or imply that I hurt you? Open up the floodgates for actions I might have to take to make it better? No way, they say.

Let me break it down further for you:
  • "What I did was wrong" is a stronger way of saying "I take responsibility," and it is the magic bullet in this construction, as many a politician has found, since it is so much better to say you were wrong yourself than to have others pointing it out for you. But even if someone else does point it out, this first step is essential. 
  • "I feel badly that I hurt you" is gold, purely because of the last three words. Can you say that? If you can, it will make you look amazing. In a good way.
  • Many organizational apologies leave "how can I make this better?" out of the statement entirely, an omission that is glaring to those who care most about your issue. What should follow that is listening, along with taking up some of what is suggested by others, as opposed to announcing what you are going to do without some input.
My own pet peeve, in personal or corporate exchanges, are those who apologize over and over again for the same bad behavior, as if apologies were a bandage to be stuck on and ripped off again over a sore spot. We're left wondering how much better things would be if you fixed the problem instead of crafting repetitive apologies, no matter how pretty and insistent they are. Too often, I see an underlying "but I apologized!" attitude, as if that fixed everything.

The result of inattention to the proper apology form is a wide range of non-apology apologies, otherwise known as "sorry not sorry." One wag has suggested some non-apology apologies for personal interactions, but my focus here is on the organizational apology. That insincerity in apologies--particularly when it's visible on the CEO's face--can impact your company's stock price, according to some recent studies. So this isn't just an exercise in who'e right and who's wrong, but your future relationship with customers and stockholders.

Here are some components you might be tempted to wedge into your public apologies. Think again about these:
  • You may have overreacted, and that horrifies me: A corruption of number 2 above, this approach shifts blame to the complainer, and suggests--slyly or otherwise, that it's the complainer who's at fault for overreacting. A good example of this is in the response from the Chicago Tribune columnist who wished in a column for a Hurricane Katrina to shake up Chicago, causing a firestorm online: "Many readers thought my premise — through my use of metaphor and hyperbole — was out of line. I certainly hear you. I am reading your tweets and emails. And I am horrified and sickened at how that column was read to mean I would be gunning for actual death and destruction."
  • Me and my intent showed up: "That was not my intent" are four words that really should be banned from the language. The apology needs to focus on what happened and what is going to happen, concrete items. If you are sorry, say so. It's that simple. See "I feel sorry that I hurt you" to get back to the point. As Louis C.K. said, "When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don't get to decide that you didn't."
  • We'll acknowledge this but we don't want to get right next to it: Also known as the "mistakes were made" apology, this one embraces nothing so much as the passive voice. "How that column was read" is another good example, above. Notice the lack of pronouns, a bit of language legerdemain that says, in essence, "I'm not point the finger at anyone, including us." In Washington, an old saying goes, "Don't tax you, don't tax me. Tax that fellow behind the tree," and these apologies take that approach.
  • But really, we're so worthy: It's great that your nonprofit, company, or organization has a long, long record of addressing this very concern. If that's the case, why did this situation occur? Telling us about your history doesn't take away from a wrong done today...in fact, that might make your audiences and customers all the more disappointed, not less so. Maybe you could try sounding disappointed along with us?
  • We were just about to change that: Timing's a bitch, isn't it? Yes, it's good that you were thinking and talking internally about the issue. But the fact that you hadn't gotten around to it yet merely underscores that it wasn't a priority for you--nor part of your working habits. If there's an area in which to say "don't get caught," this is it. Better to anticipate--and address--issues yourself, long before anyone brings them up. And perhaps, say so publicly at the time that you are discussing it, so we all know you are in progress on this issue. "We think we can do better in this area, so we're starting a review..." might be a way to begin.
If you need a back-pocket tool to keep your apology sensibilities sharp, subscribe to Sorry Watch, a blog devoted to tracking bad apologies of all sorts. Perhaps it will suggest some lines of investigation in your own company or organization, or help you stop a bad apology a-borning. (Hat tip to another "watch" blogger, Ivan Oransky of Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch, for the pointer.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Wampa_One)

I've got a workshop on Creating a TED-quality Talk coming up in January 2016 in Washington, DC. It repeats twice in that month: on January 14, and again on January 28, and I'm limiting them to 5 seats per session. Seats are already filling, and you get a 25 percent discount if you register by October 30. All registration closes at the end of December or when all seats are filled, whichever comes first. Please join us, whether your goal is TED, TEDx, or just an elevated, current presentation style.

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