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Going beyond “I’m sorry” after you’ve messed up

5 min read


Many companies and individuals have a hard time saying, “I’m sorry,” when they screw up, even unintentionally. They seek to ignore, deflect or reject the claims against them, sometimes attempting to turn the blame onto the aggrieved party. This behavior — this denial or inability to accept and take responsibility — happens even when the company or the person is unequivocally in the wrong. It’s natural that crisis communications experts focus on the apology.

But saying sorry is often just another step in the refusal to accept blame and responsibility. We all know the “I’m sorry if you were offended” apology, which has the remarkable trait of condemning the objects of the apology. A twist on that was the ad former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer used to introduce his would-be comeback last year — an ad acknowledging the failure but immediately pivoting to “But forget that! Look at everything else I did!”

Similarly de rigueur but unconvincing are the overly broad apology (family, God, the community — everyone but the wronged party or parties) and the various ways of saying, essentially, “I’m sorry I was caught” or “I’m sorry I didn’t realize this was being recorded.”

Crisis communications is more than this, however. It’s about managing the firestorm, getting the company (or person) to look internally and see what needs to be fundamentally changed to avoid a recurrence, and many other things. It should also be about, as famous pollster Frank Luntz said repeatedly last week at the Milken Institute Global Conference, seeking forgiveness.

Why forgiveness?

Forgiveness is inherently genuine and humbling. One can mumble from a rehearsed apology written out on paper (another practice Luntz advised against) and not mean anything. One can apologize without changing behavior or culture, and without giving up power and expressing vulnerability. Asking for forgiveness is much more difficult to fake or muddle through. You are lowering yourself, explicitly acknowledging that you’ve hurt someone else, and leaving the resolution of the matter up to that person.

Such a move creates uncertainty and discomfort, transfers power and probably makes legal counsel furious, but it’s one of the only ways to rectify a situation with more than just symbolic gestures.

Much wiser people than me are behind the concept. Let’s see what they have to say. Dan Rockwell of Leadership Freak wrote recently that asking for forgiveness:

  1. Is taking responsibility for your side of a failure or offense, without excusing or accusing another.
  2. Invites improvement next time.
  3. Isn’t saying, “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry,” is a pathetic substitute for, “Will you forgive me.”
  4. Feels vulnerable, but protecting your status diminishes others.
  5. Inspires a culture of integrity. We see through people who pretend to have it all together.

He also wrote about the accountability side of forgiveness.

The other benefit of asking for forgiveness, even when (especially when?) it’s not the middle of a crisis or great wrong — a chance to reconnect on terms of understanding and build great relationships and partnerships. As Mark Goulston wrote for Harvard Business Review recently:

“If that’s so, I owe you an apology because I have never taken the time or made the effort to understand how you came to came to the conclusions you have.” Then wait to see what they say.  In all likelihood they will say nothing because they’ll be too busy feeling a little disarmed and not knowing what to think.
Wait a few moments and then say, “And furthermore I owe you another apology for something that I am not proud of.  And that is that I never even wanted to understand your point of view, because I was so focused on pushing through my agenda.  That was wrong and I am sorry.” Owning up to and taking responsibility for negative thoughts and feelings they have towards you is further disarming.

Acknowledge the situation. Apologize — with specifics. Ask for forgiveness, especially in interpersonal situations. Then, figure out what is structurally, culturally or personally wrong, and work on fixing it. Then, actually fix it, with a plan in place for feedback, self-reflection and adjustment.

Simplistic? Possibly. And it’s terribly difficult, especially at first. I’m not nearly good enough at it, if that helps. But those steps are how you go beyond communicating out of a crisis and actually become better. There are pros like Luntz out there who can be hired and thoughtful leaders and writers like Rockwell and Goulston who can offer counsel. But the hardest work is up to companies, is up to you.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship. Before joining SmartBrief, he was copy desk chief at a daily newspaper in New York. You can find him on Twitter discussing leadership and management issues @SBLeaders.