Why Most Public Apologies Suck
There’s an old Western movie, “Tie A Yellow Ribbon,” where John Wayne plays an army captain on his final mission. The mission goes south and the commanding officer’s niece blames herself. That’s when John Wayne’s character delivers his famous line.
“You're not quite 'Army' yet, miss... or you'd know never to apologize... it's a sign of weakness.”
It’s a very John Wayne thing to say, right? You can almost picture the toughened soldier staring off toward the horizon, eschewing apologies. It’s part of a masculine charicature in popular culture. Arthur Fonzarelli could power up a juke box with his fist, but couldn’t get the word “sorry” past his lips. Sorry was for wimps and sissies, not John Wayne. Not The Fonz.
Somehow, something about this sentiment grew beyond the screen and became ingrained in generations of business leaders, athletes and politicians. Apologies are for the weak, the thinking goes, and should be avoided at all costs. If you must own up to something, make it as flimsy as possible.
It’s why very few public apologies leave you feeling like the messenger actually feels sorry. It’s why so many of them feel scripted and insincere.
Take, for example, one of the most-watched apologies of 2014. After a slew of racist comments were captured on tape, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling had a lot to apologize for. He had marginalized and disrespected people. Almost everyone who heard those tapes thought the guy was a racist jerk. So why did his apology, in an interview on CNN, feel so … unapologetic?
“I’m not a racist. I love people, I always have,” Sterling said in the interview. “But those words came out of my mouth I guess.”
Seem sorry to you?
The bizarre interview carried on with Sterling saying even more racist things and somehow accusing Anderson Cooper of being a racist.
Sterling’s not alone on this. Every year we see high-profile public apologies crash and burn.
Here at StatusPage, we’re big advocates of letting people know when things go wrong and owning up to your mistakes (whether they’re your fault or not).Transparency is a cornerstone of our product and our company. It’s why we cringe extra hard every time someone like Sterling claims to be apologizing and instead kicks the blame down the road.
It got us thinking about apologies. What’s the science behind them? What’s happening below the surface when someone flubs their public apology? What exactly makes them so hard?
The Science Of Bad Apologies
In one study, Stanford University psychologist Karina Schumann instructed 98 adults to complete a survey ranking their personal qualities and values. Some of the subjects were asked to write briefly about why their highest ranked value was important to them. Then both groups were asked to think of a time they had hurt someone and hadn’t apologized for it, and to write what they would say if they were to apologize.
The apologies were independently judged, and the group that reflected on their values first wrote far better, less defensive apologies.
“The basic idea is that we are highly motivated to maintain a positive image of ourselves — an image of self-integrity, morality, and adequacy,” Schumann told New York Magazine.
This, according to Schumann, is why most apologies feel so phony. Admitting that we hurt someone or failed jeopardizes our idealized image of ourselves. We don’t like to think of ourselves as the kind of person who hurts people, so — whether we mean to or not — we protect our egos. Knowing this, we can see why Sterling was so quick to say “I’m not a racist,” and so clumsy as admitting he did something wrong. The entire Sterling interview, in fact, is a master class in protecting one’s ego to the bitter end.
“Apologies are a double-edged sword,” Peter H. Kim, a professor at the University of Southern California, wrote in the Washington Post. “By signaling repentance and an effort to repair the problem, they’re beneficial. But they’re also harmful because they confirm that blame is actually deserved. When making an apology, then, the benefits should outweigh the cost. There is little harm in offering an apology if it’s already obvious that you are guilty. But there’s also little benefit if you fail to make it clear that the offense won’t recur.”
“This is important because many offenses can be construed either way, and would-be apologizers often fail to account for people’s perception before they respond,” Kim wrote.
4 PARTS OF A BAD APOLOGY
According to Schumann’s paper, bad apologies typically have four common qualities.
- Justifying the offending actions or words.
- Blaming the victim.
- Making excuses.
- Minimizing the consequences.
Let’s consider how part of Sterling’s apology hits these points. Here he is addressing Magic Johnson, the subject of part of his leaked comments.
“If I said anything wrong, I'm sorry. He's a good person. I mean, what am I going to say? Has he done everything he can do to help minorities? I don't think so. But I’ll say it, he's great. But I don't think he's a good example for the children of Los Angeles."
Victim blaming, justification, excuses, minimizing consequences. Check, check, check and check.
The Art of A Great Apology
Thankfully, not everyone fumbles their public apology. There are a lot of great examples of apologies done the right way. They’re just harder to find.
In May 2015, Amtrak made one of the worst mistakes a company can make. There are no greater stakes than human life. And when Train 188 came off the tracks going 102 miles per hour, eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured. It was the kind of crisis that, handled incorrectly, could crush a company’s reputation.
Apologies are more important than ever when lives are lost. Many companies gloss over their apology after accidents like this. We’ve heard “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families” so many times that the words have become empty.
Amtrak’s apology was swift, complete and caring. Their President and CEO Joe Boardman wrote an open apology letter that is considered one of the best modern public apologies.
“With truly heavy hearts, we mourn those who died. Their loss leaves holes in the lives of their families and communities. On behalf of the entire Amtrak family, I offer our sincere sympathies and prayers for them and their loved ones. Amtrak takes full responsibility and deeply apologizes for our role in this tragic event,” reads one section of the letter.
8 Parts of An Effective Apology
Schumann’s research also outlines the eight traits of an effective apology.
- You actually have to use the words I’m sorry.
- Acknowledge that you messed up. (As in, “I take full responsibility for my words.”)
- Tell the person how you’ll fix the situation.
- Describe what happened, but without foisting the blame off on someone else.
- Promise to behave better next time.
- Make sure the person knows you know exactly how you hurt or inconvenienced them.
- Much like the first rule, it’s important to use some version of the phrase “I was wrong.”
- Ask for forgiveness.
Go through the Amtrak letter and you can see how they hit all these points, some more than once. Go through any botched public apology and you can see how many, if not all, of these traits are missed.
Very few of us will every be in a position where the world is waiting for us to say sorry. It’s unlikely that most of us will ever be visible enough to have millions of people to apologize to after making a mistake. But we can all learn something from these high-profile apologies and the science behind them. Whether you dropped the ball at an important meeting or your website goes down, it’s never smart to think you’re above saying sorry. You can own up and say sorry like you mean it. The right way. John Wayne be damned.