Guest Column | July 6, 2016

Strategies Bosses Use To Avoid Apologizing

Avoid Apologizing

By James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC; APR, Fellow PRSA; BEPS Emeritus, America’s Crisis Guru®

Where in the world is the school where managers study apology avoidance. It always surprises me when perpetrator-like managers have already built an impressive array of personal apology avoidance habits and language. They don’t get this from their mothers, I know that. I also know those who ignore their mom’s advice deserve what they get.

In my experience there are four popular strategies for avoiding apology. You’ll recognize each one by the language perpetrators use even if they don’t consider themselves to be perpetrators. I always talk about these excuses as soon as the subject, or argument, about apology arises. This tends to shorten the discussion because I have already vocalized just about all the excuses used to avoid something most people were taught by their mothers to do promptly or else. Let’s do the easy one first:

The lawyers won’t let me apologize. Look, lawyers are consultants like every other advisor in the play. They can only advise. It is up to the client to decide.

Apology is always a leadership decision, never a legal decision. Wait a minute. Yes, an apology is always an admission whatever the circumstances and has legal implications. That’s one of the reasons we have attorneys.

I define apology as the atomic energy of empathy because, when apologies are given, bad things start to stop happening. One of the most common things to stop happening is “get even” victim driven litigation. There is almost always litigation for damages, that’s what insurance is for. Following an apology, the tone is different and settlement becomes the focus. Your insurance company plays a very large role.

But, we could still go to trial if we apologize. You do have to prepare for trial, but here’s another powerful twist. Hire a second independent law firm to start settlement talks immediately. No law firm can litigate and negotiate settlement at the same time. I bet a settlement will occur a lot faster than the traditional pretrial defense litigation steps. Besides, the odds of a litigation actually getting to trial in the U.S. are very small (like one out of more than a hundred). Courts encourage and support settlement talks at the earliest possible time.

An effective apology has five must-be-done components:

  1. admission of doing something that hurts of victimizes
  2. explanation of specifically what the harm is/was
  3. discussion of lessons learned and behaviors that will change
  4. direct request for forgiveness from the victims
  5. penance to be performed to atone for the damage done

Well, okay, I know you still want to know the four apology avoidance strategies.

Strategy 1. Self-forgiveness:

  • “It’s an industry problem; we are not the only ones.”
  • “This isn’t the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last time.”
  • “Let’s not blow this out of proportion.”
  • “We couldn’t have known.”
  • “It’s not systemic.”
  • “Don’t our good deeds count for anything?”

Strategy 2. Self-talk:

  • “It’s an isolated incident.”
  • “It couldn’t have been done by our people.”
  • “Not many were involved.”
  • “If we don’t do it, someone else will.”
  • “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Strategy 3. Self-delusion:

  • “It’s not our fault.”
  • “It’s not our problem.”
  • “We can’t be responsible for everything.”
  • “It won’t happen again.”
  • “It was only one death, in one place, at one time. Why is everyone so angry?”
  • “Life can’t exist without risk.”

Strategy 4. Lying:

  • “I don’t know.”
  • “We’ve never done that.”
  • “It hasn’t happened before.”
  • “It can’t happen again.”
  • “We won’t give up without a fight.”
  • “I’m not a crook.”
  • “I did not have sex with that woman.”

Share these lists with every executive so they know all of these excuses are off limits. Don’t worry the urge for avoidance is so strong they will begin thinking of new ones immediately. As you hear the new avoidance language, build another list and circulate immediately to executives to re-inoculate them against apology avoidance.

Most of all, have the boss call his/her mom (they probably have already) and ask their advice before trying any of these avoidance strategies. We both know what her advice will be. Take it and have a better life, maybe even keep your job. Only the attorneys will be angry, but apology, humility, and compassion are the real work of leaders when bad things happen, and victims are created.

James (Jim) E. Lukaszewski is one of America’s most visible corporate go-to people for senior executives when there is trouble in the room or on the horizon. He is retained by senior management to provide personal coaching and executive recovery advice for executives in trouble or facing career-defining problems and succession or departure issues, and was listed in Corporate Legal Times as one of “28 experts to call when all hell breaks loose” and in PR Week as one of 22 “crunch-time counselors who should be on the speed dial in a crisis.”