The growth of corporate transparency encourages leaders to possess interpersonal leadership skills alongside technical and administrative skills. Decisions made by leaders reflect not only themselves but also their company. One critical leadership skill that emerged is knowing how to be sincerely apologize. Here's a four-step process to apologize and actually mean it.
Lessons from Corporate Apologies Gone Wrong
Increased public scrutiny and easy access to companies, makes clients consider the values that leaders and companies hold before doing business. Think about a reputation-damaging event. How did the leader take responsibility? How did the public respond to their actions? How was the conflict resolved? Below are two examples of how a lack of crisis leadership skills harmed individual reputations and public companies.
1. BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico
BP Oil was scrutinized for their responsibility in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the gulf of Mexico. British Petroleum (BP) chose to report their efforts to prevent the spread of the oil spill while simultaneously diverting public attention away from the degree of devastation (Mufson, 2010).
While theoretically, this diversion tactic may have worked, in actuality, what BP did was aggravate the problem further. We observe this by looking at public’s response to BP's crisis communication failures.
In this given situation, it would have been best for BP to offer a sincere public apology, rather than provide excuses and blame others for their actions. Had they apologized properly, perhaps, they wouldn't have experienced extreme economic effects and maintained their reputation.
2. Korean Air Nut Rage
When the former Korean Air executive Cho Hyun-ah apologized for her actions, there was a lack of empathy to be found in her words. Hyun-ah's public apology lacked true intent. She did not explicitly state why she was apologizing, but simply apologized for the company’s sake.
What Hyun-ah should have done was address her actions directly, explain her understanding of the situation, accept responsibility, and take ownership of her actions. By taking ownership of her actions, Hyun-ah would have presented herself as more sincere. Like authenticity and honesty, being sincere is a critical executive leadership skill.
It is easy for people to blame others for their own wrongdoings. In today’s media-rich and opinionated time, taking responsibility and holding ourselves accountable is increasingly important. The public has the capacity to forgive. Acknowledging one’s mistakes and practicing humility are a prerequisite for forgiveness. To maintain personal and corporate integrity, leaders should be genuine in their apologies.
How to Apologize
1. Sincerely Apologize
This is the simplest apology that many people say and hear, “I am genuinely sorry for what I did.” Although simple, this is effective. By having a genuine attitude and empathetic tone, people will see, hear, and feel that the leader is sincerely regretful for the harm they caused.
“I am genuinely sorry for what I did.”
2. Use Empathy
Empathy, one of the five attributes of Third Space Thinking, is an important leadership and social skill for leaders in the 21st-century. People want to be heard and their feelings to be understood. This is no secret.
When we include the phrase, “It makes sense you’d be upset at me. I know now. I would be too,” and leaders acknowledge how they caused distress, the public feels recognized and leaders appears sincere.
“It makes sense you’d be upset at me. I know now. I would be too."
3. Be Specific
Words without actions are meaningless. When apologizing, include your plan to correct the situation. For example, say, “I know I need to change so this doesn’t impact you or anyone again. Here is specifically what I’m going to do differently,” and then specifically detail your plan of action.
Part of acknowledging your mistakes and taking ownership is rectifying the situation. Authentic leaders express sincerity by showing how to fix their wrongdoings. A leader should know how to resolve a crisis by utilizing adaptive leadership skills.
“I know I need to change so this doesn’t impact you or anyone again. Here is specifically what I’m going to do differently...”
4. Be Direct and Stress Your Main Idea
Restating your apology and determination to make things right emphasizes how sorry a leader is. When we repent, or express sincere regret for one’s wrongdoing, people feel more inclined to forgive. After you’ve stated the specific course of action to rectify the situation say, “I’m here making changes either way. I am sorry for what I did, and the pain that I caused.”
“I’m here making changes either way. I am sorry for what I did, and the pain that I caused.”
How to Issue an Effective Public Apology
KFC Apology: When Kentucky Fried Chicken Lost Their Chicken
One of the most effective examples of a corporate apology is illustrated by KFC when they ran out of chicken in 600 United Kingdom stores. The public was outraged.
In KFC’s public apology they changed the letters on their buckets from “KFC” to “FCK,” admitting their mistake in significant, yet cringe-worthy and funny way, "A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It's not ideal."
With humility, they acknowledged their mistake, (even though their supply chain partner could have easily been blamed) apologized to their customers, and thanked their team for expeditiously resolving the situation.
Throughout the ordeal, they stayed positive, light yet serious, self-aware and responsible. The public had fun with it -- even while missing their chicken, "we're making progress and everyday more and more fresh chicken is being delivered to our restaurants."
How to Say Sorry
“I am genuinely sorry for what I did. It makes sense you’d be upset at me. I know now. I would be too. I know I need to change so this doesn’t impact you or anyone again. Here is specifically what I’m going to do differently...I’m here making changes either way. I am sorry for what I did and the pain that I caused.”