Saying ‘I’m Sorry’: How These Two Magic Words Show Your Character and Redeem Situations

Amber Johnson Care for people

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Amber Johnson is the CVDL’s corporate relations advisor and a non-profit and small business communications specialist. 

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Leaders make mistakes. It’s almost impossible to lead without them, as mistakes are a natural part of the risk-taking that visionary leadership demands. But when your mistake, or your company’s, hurts clients or other stakeholders, how do you respond?
A sincere apology is the first step.
Doing an apology well can go a long way to restoring reputations. This is true for significant corporate mistakes, but also true for individual leaders who, for example, failed to give well-earned credit to a subordinate.

Whether you’re offering a mea culpa for a misspoken word, or a major recall of a global product, the framework of a good apology is the same:

1. Get his (or her, or their) attention. When feelings have been hurt or injuries have been caused, you cannot assume that you have the injured person’s attention just because you knock on his or her office door. In personal situations, a simple “Excuse me,” may do the trick. But don’t be surprised if you have to go out of your way to make sure you are heard.

This is true for companies as well. Companies often default to using a press release to get the attention of the media. There are examples of when this has been done well, and examples of when it was a classic non-apology. The more attention-getting step is to make top executives available for interviews, or to post a video of the apology on key sites. However you offer your apology, do it publicly in a way designed to be heard by those who have been wronged.  

2. Say you’re sorry, and say it clearly. Starting with a simple and direct, “I’m sorry,” is usually best. Anything else isn’t a true apology. In a terrific essay on his own lesson in saying “I’m sorry,” 37signals co-founder Jason Fried says “’
I apologize’ is renting the problem. ‘I’m sorry’ is owning it.” (Read more about Fried’s own apology here.)

3. Explain why you were wrong. We’ve all heard apologies that start with, “I apologize for the inconvenience …” The speaker is not stating a regret for her own behavior, but only that you were inconvenienced along the way.

Instead, try something like, “I’m sorry, Sharon, that I didn’t mention your name in the meeting with the CEO. You put countless hours into this project, and your work was solid. I should have acknowledged your role more directly.”
4. Show your sincerity. The best way to show your sincerity is through changed behavior. Just a few weeks ago, Rupert Murdoch, News Corp CEO, issued an apology regarding his company’s role in a phone hacking scandal:
James and I would like to say how sorry we are for what has happened – especially with regard to listening to the voicemail of victims of crime….
At no time do I remember being as sickened as when I heard what the Dowler family had to endure – nor do I recall being as angry as when I was told that the News of the World could have compounded their distress. …

I would like all the victims of phone hacking to know how completely and deeply sorry I am. Apologizing cannot take back what has happened. Still, I want them to know the depth of my regret for the horrible invasions into their lives.

I fully understand their ire. And I intend to work tirelessly to merit their forgiveness.

Murdoch’s statement has all the elements of a sincere apology: he got our attention publically; he said he was sorry and followed it up by an explanation of what he was sorry for. Now he has the long road ahead of proving his sincerity.
The classic example of showing sincerity is the 1982 Tylenol poisoning crisis. Then CEO James Burke is credited with saving the Tylenol brand by issuing a massive recall and telling customers, “Don’t risk it. Take the voucher so that when this crisis is over we can give you a product we both feel is safe.”
Sincerity must be demonstrated in personal examples of apology as well. For our example of under-appreciated Sharon above, publicly complimenting her work to the CEO at the next opportunity might restore your working relationship.
Apologies, of course, are an art and not a science. A four-step formula provides a starting place but not a script. In business, the best received apologies are issued by a person and not a company: letting regret and sincerity show is not a sign of weakness, but character.