What Should a Public Apology Look Like to Be Accepted?
We are living in an apology culture—but saying sorry is not enough.
Posted Nov 09, 2019
Last week, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg appeared in front of the American Congress to explain why two of the company’s 737 Max crashed, leaving 346 people dead. In the same week, Dutch transport minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen was called to account in Parliament about an accident involving an electric cart called a Stint in which four children were killed.
Here were two instances of public accountability evoking two widely different responses. What distinguished the two? And what can administrators and managers learn from these performances?
The Dutch minister had barely finished her statement when a "thank you" was heard from one of the children’s relatives sitting in the public gallery. Her statement passed virtually uninterrupted. Despite the mistakes made during her tenure, no one asked her to step down. The American senators, on the other hand, frequently interrupted Dennis Muilenburg’s statement to show their dissatisfaction with his replies and called on him to relinquish his position as CEO. The relatives of the people who died told the media they were less than impressed with Muilenberg’s performance.
In the Netherlands, the news media focused particularly on the Minister’s show of emotion as she read out her statement. She was variously described as "visibly moved," "extremely moved," "sobbing," "in tears," "with a trembling voice," "moved to tears," or "trying to suppress her tears." The American CEO was also visibly shaken and was seen to swallow his tears on more than one occasion. This, too, did not go unnoticed, even if it was not what the press concentrated on.
In both cases, the protagonists emphasized that safety must be key when transporting people. They also said the task of their organizations is to make sure that people are safe, and that the fate of the victims weighed heavily on their minds.
Although the two cases are not identical, the performances were pretty similar in these respects. How, then, to explain the difference in response?
Very little systematic research has been done into this type of public apology from leaders or politicians to a group of people affected by the alleged negligence of the organization they are responsible for. The situations that have been studied are mostly of politicians apologizing for an event that took place in the past and in which the apologizing politician had no direct involvement, such as the injustices done to certain groups of people under colonial rule or violent conflicts between population groups. Professor Matthew Hornsey, who teaches at the Business School of the University of Queensland, Australia, is one of the few scientists worldwide to have made the area of the public apology his own.
Based on his research, he specifies which elements need to be in place before all those involved can achieve closure and carry on with their lives. Research into responses from companies faced with complaints about faulty products produces roughly the same conclusions. It is important for the person who apologizes to show remorse and declare that they will do everything in their power not to let it happen again. But even more importantly, the apology has to be accompanied by the admittance of guilt and responsibility for the grief of the victims.
That is what happened in the case of Minister Van Nieuwenhuizen. She told MPs she had tried to find out exactly what had happened, specified the mistakes that had been made by her department, said she took full responsibility for those mistakes, and apologized for them.
Not so for Boeing CEO Muilenberg. He acknowledged the development of the new plane and the accidents had taken place on his watch and declared he would fully cooperate with any request for information. But when asked what he had personally done to uncover the facts, or what action he had taken once he realized what had happened, Muilenberg had no answer. He regretted people had lost their lives, but did not admit what part his company had played in this, nor did he indicate which policy changes he had made as a result of these events. When asked, he even refused to acknowledge his company has made any mistakes. No wonder his apology was greeted with scorn.
It is said we are living in an apology culture that sees politicians and managers apologizing at the drop of a hat without having to face the consequences. And it’s true that saying sorry is not enough. Showing grief about what has happened and promising to do better are important steps, but they are still not enough. It’s not even a question of heads needing to roll.
What makes this type of apology "real" enough for victims to accept it and move on is the acknowledgment of personal responsibility. The Dutch minister apologized for her part in the drama; the American CEO didn’t.