How not to say sorry

A bad corporate apology can make matters so much worse.

by Natasha Abramson
Last Updated: 04 Nov 2019

Apologies aren’t what they used to be. After years of CEOs and politicians artfully expressing deep regret for wrongdoing without actually saying sorry, Donald Trump has demonstrated that refusing to say sorry at all may actually be a more effective damage control strategy.

That’s a shame, because apologies are important - they are the beginning of rectifying an error, and a critical part of building honest and truthful relationships. 

It’s worth learning how to give a genuine apology because the stress that comes with a botched attempt is something most people want to avoid - to the point that they may not want to apologise at all. 

For an idea of what bad looks like, cast your mind back to former BP chief executive Tony Hayward’s media battering in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. The oil spill cost 11 lives and caused massive environmental damage, and it was at least in part BP’s fault.

Hayward said sorry many, many, many times. But he also said "the Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The… volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume."

And let's not forget, "there’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I want my life back."

The stress he was under must have been extraordinary, but downplaying what you’ve done and making it all about yourself are hardly likely to convince people of your sincerity.

A better example comes from then HSBC CEO Stuart Gulliver in 2015, when a leak revealed how its Swiss private bank had helped the ultra-rich dodge taxes a decade earlier. 

Instead of placing the blame on someone else - especially a person who was less senior, which can look like shirking from your actions - he took responsibility.

"I wasn't running the private bank at the time," he said, "but I have spent 35 years working with HSBC, so there is a proximity issue."

He also didn’t make himself out to be the victim. When Gulliver apologised, he said that the revelations had "resulted in damage to trust and confidence in HSBC and created further reputation damage to our firm and therefore hurt clients, customers, shareholders, our staff and people at large". He took care to show he understood the repercussions of the company’s actions.

Some practical tips

When it comes to the actual delivery of your apology, author Gael Lindenfield advised Management Today to use a calm, strong, even-toned voice, to demonstrate you are in control and competent. The situation may be stressful but avoid communicating that you are crumbling under the pressure. 

Only explain what is necessary but don’t be evasive, and acknowledge those who have negative feelings towards what has happened so that they feel listened to. 

Finally, at the heart of any sincere apology is a clear indication that you have learnt from the mistake and will take concrete measures to stop it from happening again. People tend to be much less forgiving of repeat offenders.

Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images


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