Apologizing Publicly Without Making Everything Worse

Here's how to turn a misstep into a better relationship.

Posted Mar 15, 2019

It’s public apology season in America and will be for the foreseeable future. There are presidential hopefuls pre-emptively apologizing for anything from their past that might raise an eyebrow. There are influential people whose resources have outrun their ethics.  And thanks to the little gadget in our pocket, any of us can make very public errors any time of the day or night.

To paraphrase relationship experts John and Julie Gottman, a good apology signifies that I put our relationship ahead of my own ego. I like this formulation because it emphasizes that the essence of an apology is the relationship. A transgression has caused a rupture in the intangible thing that exists between you and another party. The most successful apologies understand and speak directly to this relationship.  

When a Starbucks employee called the police on two men of color who sat at a table and did not order anything immediately, the company quickly grasped that the relationship it had been carefully crafting was in existential danger. For years, its hope and goal have been to be their customers’ “third place,” after work and home.  In your third place, people don’t call the police on you for no reason. Starbucks swiftly closed every store in the country for a half day to conduct employee sensitivity training. This decisive, honest, and empathetic response sat fairly well with observers. 

 Rye Jessen/Unsplash
This method is not recommended.
Source: Rye Jessen/Unsplash

In contrast, there was Equifax. Whether we want to or not, anyone with a Social Security number “does business” with Equifax. Thus it seemed a double whammy when Equifax breached the most sensitive data of nearly half of all Americans, and worse, waited six weeks to come clean. It then offered fixes that amounted to saying Give us your social security number AGAIN and we MIGHT be able to tell you if your data is compromised. And can we sell you some identity theft protection?  Among consumers, there was a sense of You did what with my data? Who chose you, anyway? And I really can’t take my business elsewhere? That breach seemed a huge betrayal of trust that hadn’t actually been freely given in the first place, a case of abusing a not-quite-consensual relationship. Equifax came off as complacent, uncaring, and unworthy of confidence.

So how do you make an apology work in the one-to-many sphere? Whether we think of ourselves this way or not (and in a future post, I will make the case that we should), we all are leaders in workplaces, communities, and families on one level or another. We all face variants of the one-to-many apology.  

I have spent 20-plus years studying what makes leaders, teams, and organizations more effective and the same elements keep cropping up — humility, candor, admitting fallibility, and throwing the door wide open to honest communication. Incorporating these elements when you have to make amends is not just the key to repairing the relationship; it’s also an opportunity to significantly improve it. 

You see, apologies have a silver lining. In my research on psychological safety, I’ve seen that, in the workplace, genuine apologies help create a climate in which employees feel safe enough to share things that might be mission-critical, whether that is bad news about a project or even an error of their own.   

The takeaway for leaders who have erred is simple, if hard to execute:

• Prepare to be vulnerable

• Put the relationship at center stage.

• Talk honestly about your mistakes

• Ask for input

• LISTEN

• Admit you don’t have all the answers

• Get more input and listen again

It may be that a truly successful mass apology is too great a contradiction in terms.  Communities and audiences are infinitely segmented and striated; the Internet sits in waiting, ready to pounce on any aspect of any apology for being somehow insufficient. But the clear, humble, candid approach that takes responsibility for what went wrong provides a standard we should hold our leaders to, because it builds rather than destroys trust.  It puts the relationship at center stage.  And in the case of our leaders and opinion makers, the relationship in question is nothing less than the public trust. 

Fortunately for most of us, our failings are not so spectacular or public that we are called to apologize to millions, or even thousands, of people wholesale.  As employers, team leaders, parents, or teachers, we can approach our communities in all their wondrous individuality. And while a truly successful mass apology may remain elusive, one thing is clear: as the 2020 election looms, we certainly won’t lack for case studies.