I’ve been tryin’ to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will get weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about…
Don Henley – The Heart Of The Matter
It’s been a tough few months for The Apology.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla’s Elon Musk, UAL’s Oscar Munoz, Uber’s Travis Kalanick, “Papa John” Schnatter…and then we have the souls from the other orbit like Al Franken (“Hey, I was a comedian, okay?), Kathy Griffin (“ A decapitated head – what was I thinking?!”), Mario Batali (“Very sorry, hey, try my cinnamon bun recipe!”), Cam Newton, Matt Lauer, Laura Ingraham…oh, let’s not forget Rosanne. It’s a long list. I’m sure you can add to it.
We can be aghast at all of these, but the simplicity of the apology has been twisted like a pretzel, rather than serving as the vulnerable, generous, cleansing exercise it is supposed to be. Let’s stipulate that not every perceived slight or offense warrants an apology, but if the circumstances call for it, what is the evidence you are hedging? This is an edgy list to follow, but intentionally so because it lays bare just how more damaging can be an apology that, really, is not.
1. I’m sorry, but it really wasn’t my fault. Who cares? Is it still your responsibility?
2. I’m sorry, but I’m not as bad as some. Are you satisfied having such a low standard for yourself?
3. I’m sorry, but I was just kidding. (Elon, don’t kid about being bankrupt on April Fool’s Day when most equity analysts have their finger twitching over the sell button. Grow up.)
4. I’m sorry, I never intended for that to happen. This is subtler, but whether you intended it or not, if someone was harmed, that is the point of an apology — not to absolve yourself but to address a wrong.
5. I’m sorry if anyone was offended. This is the most insidious and newly prevailing form. It essentially does not take ownership that something was inherently offense, but subtly shift the burden to those offended.
What, then, constitutes a good apology?
1. You have to mean it. Apologies are not an exercise in PR, they are a reflection of your character and values.
2. Take responsibility. Take one for the team, if need be, but take it. You’ll be seen as a bigger person for it.
2. Express true remorse for harm done and ask if there is anything you can do to make up for it.
3. Make a change — personally or corporately. It’s an empty apology that is not followed by some reflection and commitment to do things differently.
It’s not groveling; it’s a recognition that giving an apology is not giving up authority but building trust. It brings a mutuality to any relationship, a reminder that we are all human.
The bottom line is that apologies are not for you, they are for the offended or aggrieved party. We can apologize too much, but most of the time we apologize not to little, but simply not well.