When did saying sorry come to mean so little?

Politicians and business leaders are shirking their responsibilities when it comes to apologising. But disingenuous wriggling doesn't impress anyone, says Denise Kingsmill.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

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Recently, there seems to have been a plethora of public figures apologising for the failings of their organisations, while carefully avoiding any hint of personal responsibility or blame.

The art of the non-apology apology is a particular speciality of politicians, carefully groomed by PR smoothies to sound sincerely regretful while sidestepping culpability.

A classic example of this was the appearance of the chief executive of the NHS commissioning board, Sir David Nicholson, before the House of Commons health select committee, following the Mid Staffordshire hospital trust scandal.

As he fought to save his job, Sir David, who as the head of the West Midlands strategic health authority was responsible for the hospital where patients were neglected and ill treated, stated he was accountable but only in a narrow sense.

This disingenuous wriggling did not impress. He seemed to place the blame for the failings of the hospital on an overadherence to financial targets but failed to acknowledge his own role in setting those targets.

David Cameron, too, when answering questions on the subject, demonstrated a fine understanding of the 'mistakes were made' style of apology, where error is recognised but responsibility is not; stating that Sir David and others should 'consider their position'.

This way, the prime minister left his options open to fire him if the media furore necessitates finding a scapegoat to deflect criticism of the Government's health policies.

RBS chief executive Stephen Hester was in the awkward position last month of having to apologise for the second time in less than a year for a breakdown of the bank's antiquated computer systems that left customers unable to access their accounts.

First time round, he acknowledged his responsibility as CEO for the inadequacies of the system in the time-honoured way by suffering financial pain and giving up his bonus. Recently, however, perhaps hardened to criticism, Hester described the failure as a 'glitch' and he took the money.

Perhaps a better way to recognise his accountability would have been to withhold all bonuses throughout the bank and invest in modern and robust technology in order to improve service to customers. Fault must be corrected as well as accepted, otherwise an apology is an empty gesture.

'The buck stops here' aphorism made popular by president Harry Truman, who famously had it carved into a wooden plaque on his desk, is these days more frequently quoted than acted upon.

As a definition of a leader's accountability it cannot be bettered. However, it does not mean that CEOs should fall on their sword whenever something is bungled in the organisation.

There is a big difference between responsibility where individuals have a duty to act in a particular way, and accountability where a leader has an obligation to ensure that a system is in place to ensure that they do and that the outcome is the right one.

This means that when something goes wrong, the CEO must acknowledge the problem, apologise for any damage done to others and set out clearly and transparently what will be done to correct the problem - which may include punishing those at fault and, if necessary, compensating those hurt.

This is classic reputation management stuff and yet it is surprising how often organisations get it wrong.

This seems especially so when sex is involved. The dreadful botch that the Catholic Church has made of its handling of the sexual misconduct of priests, the abuse of girls by the Sisters of Mercy and, in particular, the widespread, longstanding cover-up of such scandals at the very top has created a shattering crisis in the Church that may well have been a factor in the unprecedented resignation of a pope.

For an organisation that institutionalises heartfelt confession, and although it has been fulsome in its apologies for numerous flaws and weaknesses, the Catholic Church has done little to rectify its systemic failings through confession, penance or reconciliation.

On a much less serious scale, it has been revealing to note Nick Clegg's squirming attempts to apologise for the alleged sexual harassment by a senior member of his party, first saying he was not aware of the problem, then claiming he had delegated responsibility for dealing with the problem to a minion, all the while self-righteously expressing sorrow and sympathy for the victims.

The deputy prime minister's apologies have become the stuff of popular culture, meriting a YouTube video and song as he tries to express regret while taking no blame for backtracking on university fees. No doubt there will be a new one to cover his latest attempt at a strategic apology without acknowledging wrongdoing or cover-up.

The blame culture - stoked up and fed by sections of the media, where every mistake or failure must be someone's fault, and no fault in a public figure can go unpunished - has led to an excessive demand for apologies, debasement and shame.

No wonder the apology has become such a fine-tuned tool. It has been described as one of the 'least costly and most rewarding investments you can make'.

- Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of British, European and US boards.

Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on editorial@managementtoday.com

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