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The Right and Wrong Ways to Apologize

Having the courage to admit we've screwed up is one of the hardest things to do. But is simply saying "I was wrong" sufficient? Giving and receiving apologies the right way isn't a matter of etiquette; it's a crucial component of ethical intelligence.
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A running gag in the 1970s sitcom Happy Days was Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli's inability to admit a mistake. The first two words, "I was," came out fine, but it was that third one, "wrong," that always tripped him up. Try as he might (and boy, did he try), the Fonz simply could not proclaim error. "I was wrrrr-rrr-rrr" was about the closest he could get. Decades later, many of us are still laughing at how Fonzie exemplified this all-too-human foible.

As the Fonz reminds us, having the courage to admit we've screwed up is one of the hardest things to do. But is simply saying "I was wrong" sufficient? As Lance Armstrong launches what some are calling his "apology tour," beginning with an Oprah Winfrey interview, it's worth considering what it means to give a meaningful apology and what sorts of apologies are close to worthless. Let's also take a look at the best ways to receive an apology.

Giving and receiving apologies the right way isn't a matter of etiquette; it's a crucial component of ethical intelligence.

How Not to Apologize
1. Say that "mistakes were made." This classic dodge is a favorite of business leaders and politicians alike. Although its use in government isn't limited to one political party, the phrase is most famously associated with Ronald Reagan's 1987 State of the Union address, in which the president used it to refer to the Iran-Contra scandal.

"Mistakes were made" is rightly referred to as a "non-apology apology" because this phrase is in the passive voice and thereby absolves the speaker of any responsibility. Its use by a leader is ethically unintelligent because a critical component of leadership is accountability. Stating that "mistakes were made" is simply another way of saying, "Bad things happened on my watch. But other people did them, and I can't be blamed."

2. Change the subject. Refusing to address a problem that one has caused makes psychological sense. After all, who wants to admit that he or she is flawed in some way? Those who feel that admitting error is a sign of weakness are likely to change the subject when confronted with mistakes they made. It's not an ethically intelligent move, however, because it fails to acknowledge the reality that we are, in fact, less than perfect. A leader shows respect to the people he or she is leading by informing them of things they need to know, which often (but not always) includes an acknowledgment that the leader has erred in some way.

3. Drag your feet. Remember when U.S. Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod was abruptly fired after Andrew Breitbart circulated an edited video of Sherrod that made her appear racist? Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack eventually apologized to Sherrod and took full responsibility for having exercised poor judgment by dismissing her. Sherrod accepted the apology and said that it made her feel better. But she also stated that it "took too long" to come, and she ultimately chose not to accept the White House's offer to be reinstated. Vilsack deserves credit for owning up to his serious mistake and attempting to right a wrong that he had committed, but for the person on the receiving end of the injustice, he should have done this sooner. It's not enough to give someone his or her due; one must do so in time. (Full disclosure: Shirley Sherrod and I are both received fellowships from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and were in the program at the same time.)

4. Deny there is a problem. Burying your head in the sand in response to a blunder is ethically unintelligent because there is such a thing as reality. Your mistake is still a mistake, whether or not you're able to accept this fact. Both it and the consequences that followed from it occurred, whether or not you want to believe this is true.

5. Blame someone else. The worst oil spill in history started when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the rig was licensed by BP, the company's CEO, Tony Hayward, initially had this to say about his company's accountability: "The responsibility for safety on the drilling rig is Transocean [sic]. It is their rig, their equipment, their people, their systems, their safety processes." BP eventually accepted the blame for the catastrophe, but not before a mountain of evidence made it impossible for them to deny their culpability. For years to come, this will no doubt be the platinum standard for how not to apologize for one's mistakes.

How to Apologize with Ethical Intelligence
When you mess up in some way, an apology is the very least that can rightly be expected of you. However, some forms of wrongful conduct are so serious that a mere "I'm sorry" isn't enough of a response. With this in mind, here are some guidelines for making ethically intelligent apologies.

1. Admit your mistake quickly and take personal responsibility for it. Don't say "We made a mistake" when you mean "I made a mistake." Even if you're not the head of your organization, the buck should still stop with you.

2. Apologize first to the person you have wronged. That is the person who matters most.

3. Speak from the heart. An insincere apology is as bad as no apology at all. People can tell when you really mean it, even if you think you're a good actor and can fool everyone. If you don't think you're wrong, don't apologize -- but be prepared to defend your position.

4. Realize that sorry is just a word. For that word to be meaningful, you must do your level best to avoid repeating the mistake. This means coming up with a strategy and sticking to it.

5. Know that a meaningful apology is a sign of integrity, not weakness. Anyone can blame others, or deny that he or she did anything wrong, or lie about what really happened. Only a strong, self-possessed person can own up to his or her mistakes, and only such a person commands true respect.

6. Don't be afraid to ask for help. If you can't do something well on your own, invite others to work with you on the problem. If the problem is beyond your grasp, consider asking someone else to take it on, if it is appropriate for you to do so.

How to Respond to Apologies with Ethical Intelligence
1. If someone has done something wrong and apologizes to you, accept the apology graciously.

2. You are justified in expecting a person to avoid repeating the behavior that required an apology in the first place.

3. Depending on the situation, you might need to make clear to the other person what the consequences will be if he or she makes the mistake again.

4. "Three strikes and you're out" is fine for baseball, but in other areas, it may take only one strike for someone to be justifiably banished from being a player. Some mistakes are so serious that you should not grant a second chance. For relatively minor slipups, however, or if the task at hand is unusually difficult, it may make sense to allow more than three opportunities to get it right.

5. If the person who apologized continues making the same mistake over and over, you might have to say, perhaps regrettably, "I can't in good conscience give you another opportunity to slip up," no matter how much that person continues to apologize.

The 1970 film Love Story (written by Erich Segal, directed by Arthur Hiller) featured the memorable, if perplexing, line, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." Even if this were true, there are many other areas where we do have to say we're sorry -- and mean it. The challenge for all of us is to admit we've made a mistake, to do our best to ensure we don't do it again, and to forgive others who sincerely regret their own poor judgment. No one is perfect, but most of us do have the capacity to right our own wrongs and to accept the imperfections in others.

Watch an excerpt from my keynote speech that includes a discussion of ethically intelligent apologies.

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