Much has been written about apologies and how they can be effective in resolving conflict. However, two recent events spurred me to tackle this important topic once again and identify lessons that apply to conflict resolution.
First, I listened to a terrific podcast of the CBC radio program “Under the Influence” with Terry O’Reilly. He is a master storyteller and devoted this episode of his terrific series to corporate apologies used by corporations strategically as part of a public relations plan to redeem themselves in the eyes of their public. He described four specific situations in which corporations (Johnson & Johnson, Dominos Pizza, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Maple Leaf Foods) engaged in what might be referred to as the “instrumental” use of apology (some more successfully than others).
O’Reilly explained that when listeria was discovered at a Maple Leaf Foods plant in 2008, CEO Michael McCain immediately took a public leadership role by ordering a recall and issuing a personal apology. McCain described the steps taken to respond to the outbreak and said he was “deeply sorry”. O’Reilly observed that this apology was effective because Mr. McCain acted quickly and decisively, didn’t avoid blame or point fingers, and maintained full responsibility. The full page newspaper apology published by the Toronto Maple Leafs after they failed to make the playoffs this year took a similar approach but O’Reilly speculated that because it was in writing and wasn’t accompanied by tangible acknowledgements (like ticket price reductions) the public didn’t buy it.
Based on the four examples, O’Reilly provided some practical apology-pointers:
- Separate the apology from the explanation. The apology must stand on its own to be processed by customers. Otherwise, they hear only excuses.
- Own more than your portion of responsibility. It is a human tendency to assign portions of guilt (“we are responsible for 40%; they are 60% at fault”). It is better to own the entire problem.
- Focus on what happens next and show leadership. Action accelerates forgiveness.
- Apologies are awkward to hear but they have the power to heal.
- A sincere and timely apology is essential to restoring trust and reputation.
The second event that spurred this post was the lengthy written apology published by former Seinfeld star, Jason Alexander, after his reference to cricket as “gay” during his TV appearance June 1st on the Craig Ferguson show. The full text of the apology is provided here. This is actually a remarkable letter and one has to wonder whether he wrote it himself or engaged a coach. What makes it so impressive?
Here are my responses to Alexander’s piece:
- It was timely (within one week of his statement).
- He honestly acknowledged his lack of sensitivity (“I didn’t get it”).
- He owned his responsibility for the gaffe – fully.
- He refrained from trying to explain away his statement. He explained the context but didn’t excuse what he said.
- He showed a willingness to reflect on his own behaviour and thoughts. His first reaction was that he didn’t understand at all why people were offended, but he didn’t stop there. His apology seemed to flow naturally from his own growing insight.
- He showed an ability to learn from his mistake.
- He demonstrated empathy for those who were being abused.
- He didn’t use the very common and ineffectual “if” apology (“I’m sorry if I did anything to offend you”).
- He made it personal and specific to the situation.
- He appeared to be sincere and provided a heartfelt apology.
The apology has been called “a PR Homerun”. I invite you to read the entire piece and let me know what you think.
It seems that simply saying “I’m sorry” is not enough. One of the best pieces on apology is still John Kleefeld’s article about the BC Apology Act (2006). He lists the four elements of an effective apology (at page 790):
Apology Element Expression
Remorse “I’m really sorry I didn’t call you the other day with the information”
Responsibility “I know what I did was wrong.”
Resolution “I promise something like this will never happen again.”
Reparation “If there is any way I can make it up to you please let me know.”
Jason nailed all four and more. I can’t say as much for the apology from the Toronto Maple Leafs – but that is another story.
Apologizing is a complex business. But we need to keep practicing! In addition to its other important functions in human society, apology can be an extremely important part of a negotiated settlement. In fact, in some situations it may be the most important part. Kleefeld says:
For many, an apology is compensation – even restoration – and can be the most valuable part of a settlement. This is especially so where the wrong has a high degree of moral turpitude, as in sexual abuse cases where the offenders were in positions of trust, or where the wrong arose out of a doctor-patient or other professional relationship in which trust is a hallmark. Of course, the lawyer’s predilection is to state loss in terms of money damages, and this is the kind of relief courts can order. But it is presumptuous to impose this view on clients and to elevate the importance of quantifiable losses over the healing aspects of apologies. In some cases, doing so may even add proverbial insult to injury.
It is encouraging that the media is highlighting this critical skill and helping us to keep it top of mind.