The Three “Apologies” That Makes Things Worse

Sorry.  Not sorry.  We’re all familiar with the non-apology, people who toss off “I’m sorry” without meaning it or understanding how their actions affect others.

It’s annoying in small-scale situations, but when the non-apology comes from a CEO, it’s simply mind-boggling.  Despite being assisted by experts and crisis managers, multiple CEOs have made bad situations worse by offering empty non-apologies.  Here are three most common types of non-apologies:

The Gloss Over

This is one of the worst.  It wreaks of someone trying to minimize what actually happened.  Exhibit A:  After the recent United Airlines debacle, where a paying customer was dragged off the plane, CEO Oscar Munoz’s first public statement was,

“I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers.”

So much for flying the friendly skies.  If you weren’t afraid of flying before you will be now.  Apparently re-accommodate and being physically dragged from your seat are the same thing to Munoz.  This particular type of non-apology gets the worst reaction because people see it for what it is, I’m not actually sorry, I’m just sorry I’m in the position where I need to say something that sounds like an apology.

Solution:  Admit what actually happened, use your words people.  On his third try Munoz finally got it right.

The Shifter

When it was revealed that Volkswagen faked emissions testing, then former CEO of Volkswagen America Michael Horn, said, “This was not a corporate decision.  It was a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reason.”  In other words, not me, not me.  Leaders who take this route fail to realize, shifting the blame to your team is basically saying, “I’m a terrible leader.”  It makes you look worse, not better.

Compare Horn’s blame game with Mary Barra, who became CEO of GM after the ignition switch debacle yet still took full responsibility for the fallout and fixing it going forward.  Barra said, “Today’s GM will do the right thing, that begins with my sincere apology for everyone who has been affected.  I am deeply sorry.”  Not surprising Barra still has her job, GM still has public goodwill, and their brand continues.

The Cry Baby 

Former BP CEO, Tony Hayward apologized for letting over 20 million gallons of oil spew into the gulf killing 11 platform workers in the blast and thousands of animals with the remnants.  But then he made it clear who the real victim was saying, “We’re sorry for the massive disruption, there’s no one who wants this over more than I do.  I’d like my life back.”

Oh poor Tony, I’m sure you would like your glittering jet-fueled life back.  Unfortunately public sentiment went with the 11 men who worked for you who lost their actual lives due to BP’s negligence.

Non-apologies never work.  People see them for what they are.  Empty self-protective words that have nothing to do with what actually happened, but everything to do with the CEO scrambling to keep his or her job.

Bad stuff happens, if it happens on your watch, name it, claim it, apologize and work to make it right.  Mistakes, even horrible ones, can be recoverable.  But they are not recoverable until the leader offers a sincere apology.