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Mea Culpa!: A Course in Public Apology

A public mea culpa serves an essential individual, institutional, intergroup, or moral purpose, says Barbara Kellerman in this excerpt from Harvard Business Review. Here are guidelines for the most effective approach.

Apologizing in public is not easy, especially for leaders. They are heroes when things go right—and scapegoats when things go wrong.

In addition, public apologies extended by corporate leaders are not, even under the best of circumstances, without risk to their companies. Several experts have warned of the possible downsides. Mary Frances Luce, a marketing professor at Wharton, points out that while apologies can moderate customers' anger, they can also strengthen the negative associations between the brand and the problem. Her colleague Stephen Hoch suggests that since firms tend to deal with a heterogeneous group of customers, a mass apology can be risky simply because not everyone requires an apology. In fact, as Hoch notes, large numbers of customers are likely not even to know about the problem, so when a company apologizes for its inappropriate or illegal behavior, some will say, "Hey, I didn't know you were doing that kind of stuff." And Chris Nelson, a vice president of the global public relations firm Ketchum, cautions that unless apologies are extended wisely and well, "[t]hey might only ensure that the company will face huge legal judgments." He adds, "That's a shame because proper communications often can drain significant amounts of public animosity from a situation." Which is precisely the point. Even those who prescribe caution agree that a good apology made in a timely fashion is more likely to ameliorate a bad situation than to exacerbate it.

We have more anecdotal evidence than hard data on what exactly apologies accomplish. Yet academic research conducted so far does suggest that leaders are prone to overestimate the costs of apologies and underestimate the benefits. We know, for example, that apologies often defuse the anger of those who were injured or feel wronged. In a recent British study of malpractice patients, 37 percent said they would never have gone to court in the first place had an explanation and an apology been extended. Similarly, a study conducted at the University of Missouri showed that contrary to the conventional wisdom—which is that a defendant in court is smart to avoid an admission of guilt—full apologies are more rather than less likely to result in quick settlements of lawsuits.

In fact, the more severe the injury, the more important the apology is to a resolution of the conflict. Robert Rotberg, the director of Harvard University's Program on Intrastate Conflict and Conflict Resolution, has studied South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and concluded that apologies can create the possibility of closure in even the most extreme post-conflict situations: "The delivery of apology from a dominant side to an aggrieved minority, or from each or all of the contenders mutually, can calm long roiled waters and greatly assist in effecting a successful transition."

Should business leaders always appear confident, even invincible?

President George W. Bush—initially, anyway—took the opposite approach in fielding criticism about the war in Iraq. Whatever your position on whether the United States should have invaded Iraq to begin with, and whatever your position on how the administration has handled the conflict since then, you were probably struck by President Bush's long-standing refusal to admit to anything more than a single "miscalculation," particularly during the period that is officially postwar. This in light of a war that has been longer, messier, and bloodier than anyone in the administration had predicted—and in light of a series of scandals, including those involving torture, for which only a few down the ladder have been held responsible.

We will never know what would have happened had the president been more willing to acknowledge the problems in Iraq earlier. Clearly, Bush was betting that time was on his side—that if he held out long enough, events would turn in his favor. But his certitude, his rigidly held opinion that you can't lead the world if you say you made a mistake (to paraphrase Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen), did not yield the result he'd hoped. The situation in Iraq remained unstable at best, and the president's approval ratings, which translate into his capacity to govern effectively, suffered a steep decline. In short, the cost of President Bush's insistence that he appear impervious to human error was high—which explains why, in a series of public appearances toward the end of 2005, Bush finally was more open and honest. While he did not go so far as to apologize, he did specifically acknowledge and assume responsibility for several mistakes. (Almost immediately thereafter, the president's approval ratings went up, five points in some polls, seven in others.)

In the wake of Carly Fiorina's ouster from Hewlett-Packard, Wall Street Journal columnist Carol Hymowitz asked, "Is it suicidal to admit publicly that things haven't gone as expected and own up to mistakes? Or should business leaders always appear confident, even invincible?" There are no strict rules on dealing with matters of the human condition. But by looking at both hard data and anecdotal evidence, we can establish some guidelines for when and how a leader should make a public apology.

[A] public apology should serve an important individual, institutional, intergroup, or moral purpose. That being said, if the offense is institutional rather than individual, the top leader (the CEO, for example) is not necessarily the best person to extend the apology. Sometimes the institution is better served if someone further down the organizational ladder acknowledges the problem and expresses regret. In other words, leaders of groups and organizations should consider apologizing publicly only if and when a critical interest is at stake, and only if and when they're the only ones who can do the work that needs to be done.

How best to apologize depends on the nature of the situation. A full apology includes acknowledgment of the offense, acceptance of responsibility, expression of regret, and a promise not to repeat the offense. But sometimes a partial apology—for example, the acceptance of responsibility or an expression of regret—is better than nothing. Further, while apologies generally should follow hard on the heels of the transgression, lest the offending individual or institution be viewed as avoiding blame or as begrudging in its atonement, there are situations—for instance, when large numbers of people have suffered—in which haste makes waste.

Excerpted with permission from "When Should a Leader Apologize—and When Not?" Harvard Business Review, Vol. 84, No. 4, April 2006.

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Barbara Kellerman is the research director of the Center for Public Leadership and a lecturer in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

A Framework for Apologies

by Barbara Kellerman

When you or the people you lead mess up, it's not easy to decide whether or not to apologize publicly—or to determine how best to do so. Here are some questions that can guide your approach.

What function would a public apology serve?

  • Are you or your organization right? If so, could extending an apology serve your interests anyway?
  • Are you or your organization wrong? If so, could extending an apology get you out of a tough situation?

Who would benefit from an apology?

  • You personally?
  • Your organization more generally?
  • Other individuals and institutions you relate to?

Why would an apology matter?

  • For strategic reasons?
  • For moral reasons?

What happens if you apologize publicly?

  • Will an apology placate the injured parties and hasten the resolution?
  • Will an apology incite the opposition?
  • Will an apology affect your legal jeopardy?

What happens if you don't apologize?

  • Is time on your side—will the problem likely fade?
  • Will your refusal to apologize (or your refusal to do so promptly) make a bad situation worse?

Excerpted with permission from "When Should a Leader Apologize—and When Not?" Harvard Business Review, Vol. 84, No. 4, April 2006.