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Yet again we have a public luminary, this time NBC's Brian Williams, standing before us and ostensibly apologizing for "misremembering" critical details in a story that left him looking undeservedly heroic. True apologies have the power to restore the esteem in which we initially held the transgressor. Will Brian Williams' apology be accepted? Only if it included the five dos and five don'ts that create an effective apology.
The five dos
Remorse. A true apology starts by saying "I am sorry." All too often we hear executives lament that their apology was not accepted. In many cases they may have said they were sorry, but that was all. Saying you are sorry is simply the beginning of the apology, and should never be confused with the apology itself.
Take responsibility. Taking responsibility for our mistakes and failures is not easy; we much prefer owning up to whatever goes well. Now is the moment to unambiguously take responsibility for your actions and own up to the transgression. Is this not precisely what you want to hear from them when they make mistakes?
Empathy. Followers need to know that you realize how you have let them down; they want to hear you say "I know I hurt you when …" – and you cannot afford to get it wrong. If you are not sure exactly what it is that you did wrong, ask them. This is a great time to start a conversation and show your vulnerability.
Restoration. So what are you going to do to correct the situation? If you embarrassed or humiliated a follower in front of clients through intemperate remarks, tell the clients that you were in the wrong, perhaps in front of the wronged employee. If your mistake meant that employees had to work overtime and kept them from their families, a gesture such as a dinner voucher for the family may go a long way. But remember that the restoration must be in the same realm as the transgression: Dinner vouchers do nothing to undo humiliation.
Plan of action. End your apology by clearly laying out the practical steps you are going to take to try and make sure it never happens again. Then take them. Reinforce your humility by showing you know you are fallible.
The five don'ts
Don't Ramble. The best apologies are delivered in 60 seconds or less; this really is an instance of less is more. Be absolutely clear what you are going to say before you start; plan the apology. Think what it is that you want them to remember. Roleplay the interaction beforehand. You only get one chance to apologize. You cannot expect to successfully apologize for your apology.
Don't be conditional. How often do we hear apologies open with "If I have offended anyone…." What this really says is "I don't think I did anything wrong, but if you were offended …". Don't imply that other people reacted unreasonably. You did offend. Own up to it.
Don't explain. What do most good people want to do after transgressing? They want to explain how it occurred in the first place. But explanations following apologies, or worse, without apologies, are seen as excuses (for example Mr. Williams' comment that he "conflated" events in his mind) and destroy any possibility that the apology will be effective. This is not to say that explanations are never appropriate, as they can provide opportunities for learning. But this is not the time to enhance their understanding; this is your chance to show them what you have learned.
Don't ask for forgiveness. And what do really good people want to do after apologizing? They want to ask for forgiveness. Yet doing so will probably destroy any benefits from the apology. Why? Because an apology is all about addressing your followers' feelings, and displaying the humility that characterizes high-quality leadership. In contrast, asking for their forgiveness makes your followers responsible for your feelings, and what could be more self-serving and egotistical? Don't make it less likely that they will forgive you by asking for forgiveness.
Don't apologize if you can't live up to the apology. If you do choose to apologize, you must accept that you are inviting greater scrutiny of all your actions. After apologizing for the safety issues in Toyota in 2010, CEO and president Akio Toyoda immediately left the press conference – in a black Audi. After an apology, you will be judged by your behaviour, not your words. The larger the gap between words and deeds, the more likely you are to find the word "hypocrite" enter the conversation.
Does following all these steps guarantee that the apology will be accepted? Or in this case, can it guarantee Brian Williams will retain his job? Sadly not; there are many factors that contribute to the decision to forgive, such as the quality of the relationship prior to the transgression. But a true apology, sincerely offered, reminds others of your courage and humility, and helps them be willing to forgive.
Julian Barling (@JulianBarling) holds the Borden Chair of Leadership at the Queen's School of Business, and is author of The Science of Leadership: Lessons from Research for Organizational Leaders.