By Eric Peterson | April 30, 2019

Increasingly, it seems that we live in a culture of perpetual outrage. Some would argue that the anger has always been there, but now, thanks to the leveling dynamics of social media, the outraged have an accessible, audible voice. Others argue that the anger has addictive qualities, and is fueled by the speed and breadth of our ability to connect online. As a result, knowledge of public missteps by celebrities, politicians, and employers has the capability to spread with lightning speed. This has led to an increase in the number of individuals finding themselves in a position where they are asked, both politely and impolitely, to issue an apology after doing or saying something that has caused an unwelcome stir.

Those of us who have spent a lifetime engaged in organizational systems can probably relate to both sides of this dynamic – the person who has, intentionally or unintentionally, harmed or offended someone else, and the aggrieved party who has felt pain or offense, and demands an apology. From these experiences, we can derive some clear lessons about when apologies work, don’t work, and the traps to avoid.

#Diversity and #inclusion lessons learned about when public apologies work, don't work, and the traps to avoid. Click To Tweet

The Insincerity Trap

The cardinal rule when making an apology is to be truly sorry. If a person realizes exactly why and how they messed up, and is sincerely regretful, it’s much easier for them to apologize successfully. However, even then, humans are likely to get defensive, deflect blame, and cover their bases. These impulses can leave their mark in a way that’s often painfully obvious to everyone but the person apologizing.

The most obvious form of the insincere apology is any variation on “I’m sorry if you were offended.” That little “if” speaks volumes, turning an apology into a conditional condolence that translates to, “If you took offense, I’m sorry; but if you didn’t think I said anything wrong, then I agree with you.”

The Ignorance Trap

Of course, in order to be sincerely regretful, a person has to know why their words and actions were wrong. This sounds obvious enough, but there are many bungled apologies that ultimately reveal the depth of the offender’s ignorance, and therefore invalidate their effort to make amends.

Possibly the most egregious example in recent memory is the apology of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, whose medical school yearbook page, curated by Northam himself, contains a photograph of two men: one wearing blackface and the other dressed in the white robe and hood of the Ku Klux Klan.

His initial apology, “I am deeply sorry for the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo and for the hurt that decision caused then and now,” seemed promising. Later, he followed up his written apology with a disastrous news conference in which he admitted to appearing in blackface as singer Michael Jackson at another event, joked about how difficult it is to remove shoe polish from one’s face, and might have moonwalked for the assembled journalists present had his wife not stopped him. In a later interview with Gayle King, he referred to the first Africans brought to America as “indentured servants” rather than slaves, a term which is considered historically accurate by some, but proved to be remarkably tone-deaf to his critics, especially considering the racial grievance he was apologizing for.

Northam was immediately met by ridicule for these performances, which is ultimately beside the point. What is more telling was that Northam proved that he didn’t truly understand the harm that he initially apologized for, an ignorance that became more obvious the more he spoke.

The Deflection Trap

In October of 2017, actor Kevin Spacey was accused of sexually inappropriate behavior with a teenage boy in the 1980’s. He began his apology by claiming not to remember the encounter, but eventually offered an apology to his accuser “if I did behave as he describes” (there’s that “if” again), noting that his actions “would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” In this way, without ever saying so, he placed the blame for what had now become a hypothetical assault on the alcohol he consumed earlier in the evening, as though this were somehow out of his control.

For an apology to stick, it’s crucial that the person offering the apology takes full accountability for the behavior. The worst offenses in this regard often attempt to shift some of the blame to the person or group being apologized to.

In the case of Kevin Spacey, he took the act of deflection to almost comical levels by choosing this particular moment to formally come out as a gay man after years of speculation. As a result, he earned almost universal condemnation from the LGBT community for dangerously linking his sexual orientation to a charge of child sexual assault, and from nearly everyone else for attempting to distract the media and the public from the alleged victim of his behavior.

The Defensiveness Trap                                                                                                    

Apologizing is difficult, mostly because doing it right is an incredibly vulnerable act. It’s understandable, therefore, that those in a position to apologize will put up certain defenses. And, it’s equally important to comprehend how those defenses can cancel out the apology.

The most common form of defensiveness while apologizing is to make a person’s good intentions more important than the bad outcomes of their words and actions. “I did not mean to cause offense” might be an important piece of context in an otherwise successful apology, but it can never be the final word.

In October of last year, Dove posted a video on Facebook that included a black woman removing a t-shirt to reveal a white woman underneath (who, in turn, removed her t-shirt to reveal a Latina woman underneath). The video quickly became a source of controversy, as it seemed to suggest that Dove body wash might transform a black woman into a white one.

The tweet from the official Dove account that followed read, “An image we recently posted on Facebook missed the mark in representing women of color thoughtfully. We deeply regret the offense it caused.”

While Dove deserves points for writing an apology without the word “if” in it, the apology expresses regret for the offense – not the action that caused the offense. Additionally, the phrase “missed the mark” didn’t please some of the video’s critics, who wanted Dove to acknowledge that the offending images were wrong, and not “right-ish.”

The Non-Committal Trap

Finally, for an apology to be successful, it has to result in real and lasting change. It’s helpful for the person apologizing to make note of their commitment to changing their behavior moving forward.

In 2015, recording artist Taylor Swift pulled her music from the new Apple Music streaming service because of the company’s policy not to pay artists when their songs were streamed during customer trial periods. Apple apologized in a tweet that noted that the policy was officially changed, and artists would now be paid during trials.

In contrast, when Louis CK apologized for sexually predatory behavior in 2018, he took full accountability for his actions without any deflections and ended with a commitment to “step back and take a long time to listen” to the concerns of the women he had assaulted. Sadly, he was back on stage before the year was out, making abhorrent jokes about the same allegations he had, seemingly remorsefully, apologized for. While the apology itself was well-crafted, it was negated by his actions a short time later.

6 pitfalls to be mindful of when issuing public apologies related to #diversity and #inclusion. Click To Tweet

Avoiding the Traps

An effective apology is simple enough to craft: know why your words or actions were wrong, communicate that knowledge, take full accountability for your behavior, and commit to change. If you feel the need to add anything else to the formula, it’s important to ask yourself why. If your motivation is to create a more sympathetic picture of yourself to those you’ve hurt or offended, tread very carefully. Ironically, the less you say in your own defense when communicating your remorse, the more sympathetic you may ultimately be. Once the damaged relationship has experienced some repair, you’ll have time to tend to your image. Just remember – you always have the option to say less.

As mentioned earlier, apologies can be simple, but they’re rarely easy. It is easy to say or do something that bungles your entire effort – but the many traps that appear can be navigated by remaining true to your purpose, which is not to gain sympathy or share the blame, but rather to communicate sincere regret.

Effective public apologies require you to know why your actions were wrong, communicate that knowledge, take full accountability, and commit to change. Click To Tweet

Eric C. Peterson, MSOD is a Senior Consultant with Cook Ross Inc. He is a recognized facilitator and educator in the diversity and inclusion space with over 18 years of experience in Unconscious Bias, diversity and inclusion, learning strategies, and organization development.