Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust

Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust

by John Kador


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Politicians apologizing, celebrities needing to apologize, and business leaders failing at the attempt fill today’s headlines. In fact, we all have occasion to apologize. But we don’t need more apologies, says John Kador. We need more effective ones that restore strained relationships, create possibilities for growth, and generate better outcomes for all.
Effective Apology challenges you to think about the fundamental value of an apology, to you and the receiver, as it explores in detail the key dimensions—what Kador calls the Five Rs—of a wholehearted apology, one that heals and renews. Kador also offers advice on how to accept or reject an apology, ten apology dos and don’ts, and a quiz to test your Apology Quotient.

The willingness to apologize signals strength, character, and integrity—real leadership is impossible without it. With over 70 examples of the good, the bad, and the ineffective apology in action, no other book combines such a practical, how-to approach with a rich analysis of what it takes to make apology work in the real world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781576759011
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 05/01/2009
Series: Bk Business Series
Pages: 273
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

John Kador is an author, consultant, and speaker who believes that every word is a moral choice. His work centers on identiying and describing best practices in leadership and promoting the highest standards of personal accountability, humility, and transparency. This book, which describes the benefits that leaders accrue when they embrace apology rather than shy from it, is squarely in that tradition. His personal credo is that different is not always better, but better is always different.

Read an Excerpt

“I’m sorry, I never apologize,” the CEO said to me. The speaker was the chief executive of a well-known, publicly traded software company. It was at that moment that I decided to write the book you are holding.

The CEO had called me to help him with a speech. His company was getting hammered for launching a marketing campaign that, in its implementation, was more exuberant than strictly legal. He needed a speech to defuse the situation. I had written a number of speeches for him, and now he asked me what he could say to handle the crisis.

Let’s see. Someone in your company made a mistake. Everyone knows it was a mistake. Why not admit it, say you’re sorry, and tell the world what you’re going to do to fix the problem?

The CEO would have none of it. “I’m sorry, I never apologize.”

Why is it so hard for leaders to apologize? I’ve written dozens of speeches for senior executives and until recently most would rather gargle with razor blades than say, simply and directly, “I made a mistake. I’m sorry.” Given the prevailing attitudes about apology and leadership, there is nothing surprising in this. No doubt, too, the CEO had a team of attorneys on speed dial whose job it was to caution him about the costs, legal and otherwise, of apologizing.

But these attitudes about apology are changing. Leaders can always be depended on to do the right thing—after they have tried everything else. One of the goals of this book is to 2demonstrate the benefits that leaders and their organizations accrue when apology is considered as the first resort, not the last.

This book is about apology: the benefits when it is available, the problems when it is missing, and the opportunities that abound when apology is effective. It serves as a comprehensive user’s manual, reference, and practical guide to using apology to build trust and honor relationships between individuals, within teams, and throughout organizations. The book also tracks the profound shifts in the perception of apology: from a sign of weakness and vulnerability to a signal of confidence, transparency, and accountability.

Effective apology is not easy. Some apologies are better than others, and some apologies are worse than no apology at all. The book gives readers a practical, step-by-step approach for crafting apologies to meet specific circumstance. It guides readers in what to say, how to say it, and—most of all—how not to make a bad situation even worse.

My goal is to give you the definitive “how-to” book on effective apology. It is not a collection of apology phrases and formulas that can be assembled to defuse specific offenses. Step-by-step instructions can build excuses, but not apologies. Nor will this book be any help to those who want to apologize on the cheap or otherwise hedge their bets. It is, rather, an account of how practicing wholehearted apology will lead to better outcomes for both parties and for the world we share. I will show that apology:

Is in the apologizer’s best interest
Should be the first resort, not the last
Is a sign not of weakness but of strength
Although not without costs, is cheaper than reflexive defensiveness
Is a critical skill for leaders in order to develop accountability
Promotes transparent leadership
Perfect Response to Imperfection

Apology is humanity’s perfect response to imperfection. Yes, it’s an obligation we owe to those we have mistreated, but apology is also a gift that benefits those who owe the apology. Practicing apology is not easy—none of us likes admitting we made a mistake—nor does it come without cost, but apologizing pays off for the apologizer in surprising ways. Apology sends the clearest signal that we have the strength of character to reconcile ourselves with the truth. Apology is the most courageous gesture we can make to ourselves.

Yes, there are costs to apology, but stonewalling also imposes costs. Our institutions and relationships suffer when we lie or try to limit our responsibility instead of cleaning up the mess we made. The first lesson of this book is that the costs of apology are never as dear as the costs of lying, denial, and defensiveness.

Who Should Read This Book?

The book will help anyone who has the desire to build, repair, and cultivate more authentic relationships. You may feel that apology comes easily to you. If so, this book will help you craft apologies that will give you and your partners an even sturdier foundation for trust. Or you may see evidence that your apologies are not well received. You may suspect that your failure to apologize effectively damages your relationships and limits your opportunities for leadership. If so, this book gives you a model for crafting effective apologies for every occasion, both business and personal, in good times and in times of crisis. You may believe that leaders shouldn’t apologize. Nevertheless, your instincts may be telling you that your reluctance to apologize creates difficulties for you. For you, this book offers evidence that apology, far from making leaders look weak, serves to make leaders appear more transparent, accountable, humble, 4 and ultimately more worthy to be followed. This book demonstrates that effective apology is in your rational self-interest.

This book’s focus is on leaders, managers, and the people they serve, but it embraces apology in the broader context of all human relations. The central message is that the ability to say “I’m sorry” facilitates the basic building blocks of relationships: trust, transparency, accountability, and humility. For many leaders, admitting mistakes and apologizing may seem like overwhelming tasks. This is understandable. Leaders have received many wrong-headed messages about apology. The book provides unmistakable support for the proposition that apology, far from being detrimental to leadership, creates the conditions for building, rebuilding, and sustaining trust and loyalty. After reading this book, your understanding, mastery, and fluency of apology will be improved—as will your awareness of non-apology and its consequences.

Three Questions for the Reader

When I pick up a book and consider whether I should buy it, I ask myself three questions: What’s in it for me? Why should I care? And why should I believe the author? I think it’s only fair that before I ask you to invest in this book, I take a crack at answering these three questions.

What’s in It for Me?

It benefits you to say you’re sorry when you make a mistake. I know that’s not the way most people think of apology. Few people are comfortable apologizing. We understand on some level that apology is an expression of admirable qualities— compassion, empathy, humility, self-awareness—but when it comes to actually practicing the art of apology, we find ourselves hesitating. It’s understandable. Western society sends out deeply conflicting signals about apology. On the one hand, we value humility, owning up to mistakes, straight talk, and candor. On 5the other, when things go wrong, the first thing we tend to do is look for someone else to blame.

In kindergarten, we teach our children to say they are sorry when they make a mistake, but how many parents model relaxed apology when they are at home or at work? We know that the cover-up is worse than the underlying offense, yet when we’re caught the cover-up sometimes looks mighty attractive. We value apology in the abstract, but turn our backs on it in practice, especially when apology is seen to impose costs.

Throughout this book I suggest that apologizing is in your rational self-interest. Yes, apology is a debt you owe those you mistreated. And it needs to be done right for their sake. But you should apologize for your own sake first, because it benefits you on every level to do so, and it results in more effective apology. The real benefit of apologizing is that it brings you face-to-face with the consequences of your actions and forces you to confront the facts. People of integrity operate based on a sense of justice. In this case, justice means honoring the facts, and if the facts are that you violated your sense of decency, a direct apology is the best way to reconcile your conduct with your values and begin to recover what you have lost.

Whatever offenders may have gained by their offense, they have lost something at least as valuable. The damage works both ways. When you betray your values by making a mistake that someone else has to pay for or offend someone either accidentally or intentionally, a little bit of your soul is at stake. People who refuse to apologize cheat themselves most of all. They trample their own sense of justice. The costs show up in many ways—as anxiety, barriers to intimacy, sleeplessness, strained relationships, difficulties at work, and even, as we will see, in your paycheck—but the costs of not apologizing always show up.

Apology is an attitude as well as a practice. It’s a marker of confident leadership. It’s the catalyst for restoring broken 6relationships and a pathway for personal growth. This book is intended to help you think about the value and importance of apologies and learn how to practice confident apology with friends, family, and coworkers. Making mistakes is not the key issue. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s what we do about the mistakes we make that determine whether we move forward or look back. In this book, I suggest that the great power of apology is its ability to help us look forward. I call it the transformational power of apology: the mysterious power of apology to heal a broken relationship so fruitfully that the relationship is renewed with possibilities that weren’t available before the offense. Apologies have more power than most of us realize to restore strained relationships, free us from vengeful impulses, and create possibilities for growth. This book is my contribution to bringing best practices to apology.

Why Should I Care?

Apology is a critical skill for our time. It promises to make every interaction go better. In times of crisis or scandal, the socialized reaction of people is to deny. Many leaders hate to apologize, offering elaborate defenses instead of accepting responsibility for mistakes. Leaders are afraid that admitting a mistake or wrongdoing will damage or destroy the group or organization for which they are responsible—particularly if there is the threat of litigation. As this book shows, the greater risk is in defensiveness and denial. Evidence abounds that we are squandering many opportunities by not knowing when to apologize, how to apologize, and how to make the apology stick. Moreover, the book describes how society’s understanding of apology is shifting. Apology was once avoided as an admission of weakness and defeat. Today, apology is increasingly regarded as an expression of strength, character, and integrity. This book tracks this profound change in the understanding of apology.

Why Should You Believe Me?

I’ve witnessed the power of apology with my own eyes in countless professional and personal settings. In my more than twenty-five years of journalism, writing books and speeches, and consulting, I’ve been exposed to the inner workings of hundreds of companies and executives as they wrestled with offenses large and small. I’ve guided hundreds of clients through crises both professional and personal. For years I wrote a newspaper ethics column. I received hundreds of letters and emails from readers who described situations in which they were either the offender or the offended. Some of the offenses were monstrous. Yet time and time again, I saw how a well-spoken apology defused resentment, created goodwill, and, more times than not, mysteriously transformed a relationship ruptured by mistrust and disappointment into something stronger and more durable than it was before. This is the transformational power of apology that I described earlier: its capability to heal a broken relationship and make it stronger.

I give credit to my willingness to apologize for the success of my marriage and the excellent relationship I enjoy with my two children. Multiple studies agree that men, in general, have a much harder time apologizing than women. That’s too bad, because I’ve seen firsthand how my family has been strengthened by my decision to apologize when I’ve made mistakes.

How This Book Is Organized

Before we get too far, let me say a word about how the book is organized. The book is divided into three parts. Part I—Practicing Apology—defines apology and examines how apology is being transformed by political and technological changes of the twenty-first century. Part II—The Five Dimensions of Effective Apology—introduces the basic building blocks that in various 8 permutations combine to create effective apologies. In five chapters, I discuss what I call the five Rs of apology: recognition, responsibility, remorse, restitution, and repetition. In these chapters you’ll find many real examples that illustrate how the five Rs cooperate to create effective apology.

Part III—Apologize for Results—describes how to make apology work in the real world. Chapter 8 addresses many of the mechanics of effective apology, including when to apologize, how to apologize, and in what medium (for example, in person, letter, telephone, email) to say you’re sorry. Just as it’s not easy to offer a graceful apology, it’s not always easy to accept an apology gracefully. Chapter 9 describes how to accept an apology gracefully—and how to reject one, when it’s warranted. Rejecting an apology generally ends a relationship. I hope you are never put in a position where you feel you have to reject an apology, but if you are, this chapter offers you some guidance. Does accepting an apology mean that you forgive the offender? Apology and forgiveness are inextricably linked, but they are not the same. Chapter 10 explains the differences between them and what accepting an apology means in the context of forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation.

I encourage readers to issue wholehearted apologies. Chapter 11 contrasts wholehearted apology with half-apology and non-apology, providing plenty of examples of each. If you want a quick lesson on the do’s and don’ts of apology, turn to Chapter 12. Most apology mistakes fall into one or more of ten categories; some are mistakes of commission, others are mistakes of omission. I illustrate each of the ten types of mistake with actual examples of defective apologies taken from today’s headlines.

Chapter 13 is inspired by the many questions about apology that my talks on the subject generate. I gather some of the more frequently asked questions in this chapter, along with answers that invite further discussion. The chapter concludes 9with a list of provocative open-ended questions that discussion or book groups can use to explore the many fascinating aspects of apology. The concluding chapter—What Can I Do Now? Five Apology Practices—describes five steps for integrating apology practices into your routine. This chapter includes some final reflections on the future of apology.

Effective Apology

The message of this book is that although mistakes are inevitable, a well-timed apology can defuse resentment, heal the parties, reduce litigation, and restore the relationship to a new footing so it sometimes emerges stronger than it was before. Apology is not cost-free, but it’s more affordable than the alternative.

Does anyone doubt that there is more apology today than there was twenty-five years ago? But we need not just more apology; we need more effective apology. Every time you turn on the news, there’s a story about someone apologizing, needing to apologize, or not apologizing enough. Institutions and governments are apologizing for deeds past and present. We’re apologizing, all right, but are we doing it as well as we could be? Evidence abounds that we are squandering many opportunities by not knowing when to apologize, how to apologize, and how to be effective when apologizing.

In this book we consider apology as an instrument for repairing human relationships, both personal and societal. As long as we recruit our friends, family, lovers, employees, colleagues, and neighbors from the human race, we will inevitably be hurt, victimized, or offended. Most of us strive for rather more perfection than we can reliably deliver. We are damaged by acts deliberate and unintentional. Since we don’t want to be mired in permanent resentment, this certainty underscores the healing importance of apology. We may not get through the day unscathed, but most of the assaults to our relationships can be healed. Let’s 10put our hearts together and learn the art of apology. Together, one apology at a time, we can build purposeful human cultures that harness our energies to benefit the rapidly shrinking world we share.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Apology is the First Resort

Chapter 1 The Age of Apology
Chapter 2 Why We Apologize and What It Accomplishes

Chapter 3 Recognition
Chapter 4 Responsibility
Chapter 5 Remorse
Chapter 6 Restitution
Chapter 7 Repetition

Chapter 8 When, Where and How to Apologize
Chapter 9 How to Accept (and Reject) an Apology
Chapter 10 Apology and Forgiveness
Chapter 11 Obstacles to Wholehearted Apology
Chapter 12 The Best Apology Possible: Ten Apology Do’s and Don’ts
Chapter 13 Talking about Apology: Frequently Asked Questions
Chapter 14 What Can I Do Now? Five Apology Practices
About the Author

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