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The 7 Deadly Sins of Apology

CEOs are no longer afraid that issuing an apology is a sign of weakness. When things go wrong, a quick apology from the CEO is increasingly regarded as the first best practice in crisis management. But like anything else, issuing a well-crafted apology takes practice.

A clumsy bad apology is worse than no apology at all because the clumsiness just reinforces the original offense the apology was meant to defuse.  Luckily, 90 percent of all bad apologies suffer from seven pitfalls I call the Seven Deadly Sins of Apology. Avoid these and all parties will be much more inclined to accept your apology, put the offense in the past, and move on.

1. Never Say “If”. As in “I certainly apologize if I offended anyone” or “I’m sorry if my remarks were offensive.”  Accept that your conduct or choice of words offended. Your intentions are irrelevant.  By saying “if,” you’re making the apology contingent, as if it may not have been offensive at all, except that the victim was too sensitive.  This is infuriating for the victim, for whom the offense is very real.

“Accept that your conduct or choice of words offended. Your intentions are irrelevant.”

2. Butt Out all Buts. As in, “I am very sorry, but you started it,” or “I apologize, but I didn’t think it’d be a problem.”  The word “but” is almost always guaranteed to botch an apology. The goal—intended or otherwise—of the word “but” is to deflect some of the responsibility from you. And the lucky beneficiary of the responsibility you are so generously willing to share?  It’s always the victim, who responds with justified anger.  If your goal was to defuse the situation, guess what?  You made it worse.

3. May It Not Please the Court. As in “I am sorry my remarks may have been misinterpreted” or “It’s possible I may have said something offensive.”  Like the word “if,” the word “may” in an apology is another attempt to distance yourself from accountability.  It turns what is a very real offense in the mind of the victim into a mere hypothetical. The victim ignores the attempt at reconciliation and redoubles his efforts to demonstrate for the world that the offense, far from being hypothetical, was very real.  It’s the very opposite reaction an apologetic CEO desires.

4. Passive Voice is to be Avoided. As in “I’m sorry you were hurt” or “I regret that your reputation was damaged” when what you mean is “I’m sorry I hurt you” or “I regret damaging your reputation.” The passive voice is grammar’s way of avoiding responsibility when you have done something you’d rather not accept total responsibility for.  The passive voice obscures agency. That’s what makes it almost irresistible for politicians in Washington, DC, where the passive takes its ultimate formulation: “mistakes were made.” Yes, but who made the mistakes? No one is ever sure. The formulation fools no one. If you make a mistake, have the decency to own it.  You’ll get points for candor.

5. You Don’t Know How the Victim Feels. As in “I know just how you feel” or “You know I’d never want to offend you.” Pretending you know how the victim feels just comes off as arrogance.  Much better to ask the victim how the offense made him or her feel.  You’ll get points for empathy and you might even learn something new.

6. That’s Not What I Meant. As in, “I never meant to imply that,” or “It was never my intention to let it go so far.” One of the hardest lessons for CEOs to learn is that the first thing victims care about is consequences, not intentions.  Few CEOs actually mean to hurt anyone.  And sometimes they are called to apologize for the actions of subordinates.  Resist the deadly sin or putting an asterisk on the apology. Focus on the real-world consequences of the decisions instead.

7. Wanting to Apologize Is Not An Apology. As in “I want to apologize to you.”  “I want to apologize” may sound like an apology, but is no more about actually apologizing than “I want to lose weight” is about actually losing weight. It’s fine that you want to apologize; the best evidence for that desire is the actual apology. Some CEOs use the “I want to” phrase as a sort of throat-clearing, a preamble to an apology that never exactly gets delivered. There’s no need to announce the apology.  Just apologize.

Taken together, the seven deadly sins of apology suggest that the CEO didn’t really do it, or if he did, it wasn’t that bad, or the victim was too sensitive, couldn’t take a joke, or had it coming. An apology is effective when the CEO recognizes the offense, takes full responsibility, expresses remorse, offers restitution, and promises not to do it again. When you’ve taken full ownership of your responsibility, when you don’t trail your apology with excuses or mitigators like so many brooms behind an elephant—then you have truly apologized.


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