Apologise like a leader: how to say 'I'm sorry'

A good apology has the power to repair relationships and restore respect. Rather than being a sign of weakness, saying 'I'm sorry' shows strength of character.

Leaders such as Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and former Australian Test cricket captain Steve Smith have all been saying the same thing lately: "I'm sorry." What makes a good apology, and how can you tell whether the mea culpa is sincere?

“Never apologise. It’s a sign of weakness,” said Captain Nathan Brittles, a United States Cavalry captain, in the classic 1949 film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

It’s a popular sentiment, but one HR specialist Karen Gately refutes. It requires courage to own up to your mistakes, she argues. “If you have behaved badly, to look someone in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ demonstrates strength of character.”

When disgraced former Australian Test cricket captain Steve Smith delivered an emotional public apology for his role in the ball tampering scandal in South Africa, no one could have doubted the courage it took to face up to his wrongdoing on national television.

“To all of my teammates, to fans of cricket all over the world and to all Australians who are disappointed and angry: I’m sorry,” he said, his face creased in anguish. 

“I take full responsibility. I made a serious error of judgement and I now understand the consequences. It was a failure of leadership, of my leadership. I’ll do everything I can to make up for my mistake and the damage it’s caused.”

A good apology has the power to repair relationships and restore respect, writes Edwin L. Battistella in his book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology. A poor apology, conversely, “leaves transgressions unresolved or even causes new harm”. 

Battistella calls on the work of Canadian-born sociologist Erving Goffman to define the characteristics of an apology. “Apologisers express embarrassment and chagrin,” he writes. 

“They acknowledge the rule of conduct they have violated and sympathise with their own ostracism. They explicitly disavow their bad behaviour and vilify the former self associated with it. They commit to pursuing correct behaviour in the future. And they perform penance and offer restitution.”

The apology delivered by a shamed and penitent Smith ticked all the boxes. 

How to apologise

Allan Briggs, a crisis management expert based in Melbourne, worked in the Victoria Police and Victoria State Emergency Services media units before he founded his own communications company, now known as Crisis Shield

Briggs works with clients to develop strategic responses to help manage the impact of incidents – anything from a chemical spill to allegations of corruption – on a business.

In cases of wrongdoing, an apology is often the best course of action. “It brings a matter to an end,” he says. “It clears it up: ‘we’ve acknowledged it, we’ve dealt with it, let’s move on’.” 

Avoiding the issue creates more problems. “Even in small organisations, if you don’t deal with something, apologise and bring it to a conclusion, it can have long-term impacts on business productivity and sentiment in the office,” he says. 

“In the car park, around the water cooler, in the lunch room, people will still be talking about that matter.”

Once a decision has been made about how to manage a situation, be swift in issuing the apology. “Once you’ve gained the facts, don’t let it fester,” Briggs advises. “Get out there pretty quickly and communicate it."

"Once you've gained the facts, don't let it fester. Get out there pretty quickly and communicate it." Allan Briggs, Crisis management expert

However, it’s important to be mindful of legal considerations. “You don’t have to tell everything,” Briggs says. Seek legal advice and proceed with caution, he advises. “Be transparent, but don’t implicate people unfairly.”

Outline what you’re doing about it: implementing a new policy, purchasing new equipment, or training staff so the error does not happen again. Always follow through. “If you say it, make sure you do it,” Briggs emphasises.

Not all apologies need to be public, he notes. “Sometimes you can take it offline and deal directly with the group that is affected. It might be an apology between two individuals or a small team or a business unit. You don’t always have to air your dirty laundry to the world." 

But it must be sincere. Sincerity – when the regret expressed truly represents the speaker’s feelings – is what makes an apology genuine, writes Battistella. No one who observed Smith’s tearful visage, for example, could deny the stricken man’s sincerity.

Banking on forgiveness

If you’re a CEO with a history of being reckless who is caught drink driving, the public response to your transgression will be negative. If, however, you have built up what Briggs calls a “goodwill bank” – a reputation for decent behaviour and a clean record – people are much more likely to view the incident as an aberration and extend forgiveness.

“You can’t underestimate the value of keeping a goodwill bank in credit, because, I can guarantee you, all of us, someday, will have to draw on it,” Briggs says, pointing to the revelations of dishonest behaviour in the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry as an example. 

“The banks are really on the back foot,” he says. “You’ve seen a number of senior executives being fired or resigning. If their goodwill bank had been strong, I’m sure there would have been a different outcome. But because the goodwill bank was already depleted when these things happened, it in some cases validates what people thought.”

How to tell if an apology is successful

“It is the recipient of an apology who determines its success,” writes Battistella. Whether an apology is accepted, rejected or becomes the subject of further discussion or offence depends on a number of variables. If it is insincere, ambiguous or incomplete – as many apologies are – there’s a good chance it won’t have the desired effect.

In 2016, OxfordDictionaries.com added to its lexicon the term “non-apology”: “A statement that takes the form of an apology but does not constitute an acknowledgement of responsibility or regret for what has caused [offence] or upset.” Non-apologies minimise accountability. They tend to ring conspicuously false, being variously couched in ifs, buts and qualification. 

In March, Mark Zuckerberg shared a 1000-word post on Facebook addressing a data breach that saw political firm Cambridge Analytica access the private information of 50 million Facebook users. “I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened,” he wrote, not in any way, as many critics observed, addressing what he did. 

Professional Development: Cross-cultural communication: learn about the importance of achieving a proper mindset for cross-cultural communication, while also learning how misunderstandings can occur and how to overcome them.

An apology is not an excuse or justification. “While other account strategies rename or reframe an offence, an apology must name an offence and express regret for it,” states Battistella.

Some get it right. Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson apologised in April, after police arrested two African-American men who had been waiting for a friend, for trespassing in a Starbucks store in Philadelphia. In the aftermath of the incident, Johnson refused to lay blame on the store manager who called the police. 

“I own it,” he said in a video posted on the Starbucks website. “This is a management issue, and I am accountable to ensure we address the policy and the practice and the training that led to this outcome.” 

Johnson followed through on his promise. In May 2018, Starbucks closed 8000 US stores for an afternoon to provide anti-bias training for 175,000 staff.

Cross-cultural apologies

Different cultures have different views on apologising. Individualistic Americans – and Australians – “see an apology as an admission of wrongdoing,” write William Maddux, Peter H. Kim, Tetsushi Okumura and Jeanne Brett in the Harvard Business Review. However, more group-oriented Japanese “see it as an expression of eagerness to repair a damaged relationship, with no culpability necessarily implied”.

In Japan, where the concept of face – related to honour, image and reputation – is particularly important, climbing the corporate ladder comes with a great sense of duty. 

“It’s extremely important that the most senior person is the one who is seen to take responsibility for the company, which would also include apologising,” says Donna Webster, director of capability development at Asialink Business. 

Apologising in Japan is an intuitive affair, layered with subtleties. A better understanding of cultural nuances can help foreigners doing business in Japan know when an apology is expected, such as when they fail to bring a business card to a meeting. 

“It seems such a small and trivial thing,” says Webster, “but the exchange of business cards is an important ritual that forms the foundation for business relationships in Japan.”

Failing to exchange cards constitutes a loss of face for both parties, she says. “If I didn’t have a card, I’d be apologising immediately.”

In the ball tampering saga, Steve Smith crossed the line from sporting brinkmanship to out-and-out cheating. Worse yet, the leadership team instructed a relative newcomer to the squad, Cameron Bancroft, to carry out the act. In Smith’s willingness to accept responsibility, and public display of emotion, he seemingly “won” Australia back over.

Contrary to Captain Brittles’ view, if executed in the right manner, “sorry” can be one of the most powerful words in the English language.

Tips for apologising

  1. The first step is "recognising that an apology is necessary", says HR specialist Karen Gately. 
  2. Be sincere. "Take ownership for what you've done," she says. "Most people are quite forgiving if there isn't any ill intention." 
  3. Avoid adding "but" to your apology. "If you say, 'I'm sorry for this but...' you might as well not have apologised," Gately says.

Make a proper apology

Crisis management expert Allan Briggs says there are four keys to a good apology: 
  1. Establish the facts, to end speculation.
  2. Make sure you own it. "Don't point the finger as somebody else," he warns. "If you engaged a third party, you have to take responsibility for that."
  3. Be clear on how the event happened. It could be that it was a case of incorrect procedure, the wrong equipment, a lack of training or poor governance.
  4. Don't lie. Ardent Leisure CEO Deborah Thomas was called out for telling reporters at a press conference that she had contacted the families of the victims of the Dreamworld tragedy, which claimed the lives of four people in 2016. The truthfulness of her statement was questioned live on air by a journalist who had received a text message from a family member disputing her claims. Thomas stepped down from her role a few months later.

Read next: How to handle mistakes at work

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