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POWER POINTS

Sorry, but it’s time to rethink apologies Add to ...

Also in this compendium: Offering staff unlimited vacations may not be as progressive as it seems

Apologies abound these days, from companies and government. When something goes wrong, CEOs are urged to apologize immediately and wholeheartedly.

But the National Football League’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, has taken a different path, journalist Will Leitch notes, and it hasn’t exactly ruined him or his league. Moreover, when CEOs apologize, they often are clumsy, diminishing the impact, business writer John Kador warns.

Mr. Leitch points out that the NFL’s supposed death knell has been ringing for years now over the dangers posed to players by concussions and various scandals, including sexual abuse, domestic violence and murder-suicide by players, and a settlement for medical benefits with players that was so meagre the court threw it out. But the league bulldozed past those public concerns. “The NFL never really admitted to any failings, never gave ground, and never stopped charging straight ahead on any of these issues,” he writes in New York magazine.

Mr. Leitch recalls lawyer Roy Cohn’s advice to a young Donald Trump: “Tell them to go to hell.” In essence, while the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Major League Baseball (MLB) have media-friendly, telegenic commissioners, the NFL has been taking Mr. Cohn’s route. It cedes nothing.

“When there was blood in the water, the NFL simply said, ‘There is no blood, and there is no water,’ and counted on members of the American public to side with the game they love rather than the press that was telling them there was something wrong with them for loving it,” he says.

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue dismissed concussions as a “journalist issue.” He was attacked for that, but it turned out to be strategically sound. Mr. Leitch doesn’t dwell further on Mr. Trump, but of course the Republican presidential nominee views many controversies surrounding him as mere journalist concerns.

“One lesson of the NFL’s experience is that probably more of what were once considered PR disasters are ultimately ‘journalist issues,’ more than any journalist would comfortably admit; if you can manage to grin and bear it through a first wave of outrage, chances are you can survive,” he says.

But, of course, every time there is a scandal, many journalists routinely call for action – for an apology. Usually they even offer some advice on how best to do that. Mr. Kador warns on ChiefExecutive.net that “a clumsy bad apology is worse than no apology at all because the clumsiness just reinforces the original offence the apology was meant to defuse.” If you’re going to apologize, though, he offers advice on how to avoid “The Seven Deadly Sins of Apology.”

Never say “if.” Accept that your conduct has offended and so don’t try to wriggle out with phrases like “I certainly apologize if I offended anyone” or “I’m sorry if my remarks were offensive.” Mr. Kador says your intentions are irrelevant and saying “if” only makes the apology contingent, implying that the victim was too sensitive. That infuriates the victim and others for whom the offence is real.

No buts. Similarly, don’t try phrases like “I am very sorry, but you started it,” or “I apologize, but I didn’t think it would be a problem.” That just deflects blame onto the victim, who will respond with anger.

Distance yourself from “may.” Another word to avoid is “may,” as in “I am sorry my remarks may have been misinterpreted” or “It’s possible I may have said something offensive.” That attempt to distance yourself from accountability seems an attempt to turn what others consider a real offence into something hypothetical. It will only raise ire.

Avoid the passive voice: Stay away from grammar’s opportunity to avoid responsibility, the passive voice, as in phrases like “I’m sorry you were hurt” or “I regret that your reputation was damaged.” Sure, it’s tough to use the active (but truthful) voice: “I’m sorry I hurt you” or “I regret damaging your reputation.” But you won’t fool people with that grammatical escape. Mr. Kador advises: “If you make a mistake, have the decency to own it. You’ll get points for candour.”

Remember you don’t know how the victim feels: Too often apologies will include a comment about knowing how the victim feels or a declaration “You know I never wanted to offend you.” Actually, you don’t know how the victim feels or thinks and pretending you do comes off as arrogant. Better to ask how the victim feels and win some points for empathy.

Don’t insist you didn’t mean it: Often CEOs defensively claim, “I never meant to imply that,” or “It was never my intention to let it go so far.” But Mr. Kador says victims care about consequences, not intentions. Sure, you didn’t mean to hurt anyone or are apologizing because of the acts of subordinates, but he advises: “Resist the deadly sin of putting an asterisk on the apology. Focus on the real-world consequences of the decisions instead.”

Wanting to apologize is not an apology: Sometimes a CEO will say, “I want to apologize.” You also may want to lose weight, but that’s not actually dieting – just a wish. Instead, just apologize.

So if you’re not Roger Goodell and you want to apologize instead of stonewall, watch for those seven deadly sins.

2. Beware of unlimited vacations

As companies increasingly start to embrace unlimited vacations, blogger Johnathan Nightingale is issuing a warning. The idea is to allow employees to take as many vacation days as they want, an honour system that accepts them as adults who will complete their work. If you want to be seen as a progressive leader – or a progressive company – this is one of the policies you’ll be urged to consider.

But does it achieve its purpose, which is to encourage staff to take care of themselves by taking all the vacation time they need? He says the answer is no.

That’s because you can’t really take as much vacation time as you want. “Instead of having an allotment they can spend largely as they see fit, your employees now have a complex tribal negotiation about how their requests stack against others, whether they’re dedicated enough, and how it will reflect on them. That’s complex no matter who you are, but imagine how that feels if you’re a minority hire, or a woman in a male-dominated team, or in any other way not a part of the in-group at the company,” he writes on Mfbt.ca.

Essentially, companies are moving from rules and processes about vacations to guilt-based management. They are inviting staff to compare themselves with each other and compete. “That leads to martyrdom, burnout, and turnover. It can poison a culture,” he warns.

He suggests if you try the policy, check the outliers: How many people are taking far too much vacation and far too little? He suspects there won’t be many in the former category, while too many are short-changing themselves.

3. Quick hits

– Consultant Kathy Gersch warns that one of the biggest mistakes in mergers and acquisition execution is forgetting to ask: What more can we become? The real power of a merger comes when both organizations let go of biases and consider how to build the two parts into a better whole.

– Toronto-based consultant Sam Geist likes to ask corporate leaders, “Why should someone do business with you … rather than someone else?” But now he also asks: “Why do customers not do business with you?” He finds that stumps many executives, and they need to learn the answer.

– Companies have been warned about greenwashing – proclaiming commitment to social responsibility that customers will view as inflated or fake. But a new study shows if employees – who see you from the inside – don’t believe the claims, it will also backfire.

– HR consultant Tim Sackett says hiring managers often don’t hire older workers because they fear those folk know more than they do. But hiring people who know more than you is the secret to success for high-performing leaders.

– The Tripit app stores all of your itineraries in one place so you don’t have to scan through various papers or e-mails.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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