John Kador began his writing career in Washington DC at a high-tech advertising and public relations agency. For the past 30 years he has been the principal of Kador Communications, which provides editorial assistance to dozens of corporate and media clients. He’s an author, consultant, and speaker who acts as if every word is a moral choice. His work centers on identifying and describing best practices in leadership and promoting the highest standards of personal accountability, humility, and transparency. His personal credo is that different is not always better, but better is always different.
He is the author of over 10 books, including Charles Schwab: How One Company Beat Wall Street and Reinvented the Brokerage Industry and the NY Times bestseller Net Ready: Strategies for Success in the E-conomy (with Amir Hartman and John Sifonis). Also, The Manager’s Book of Questions: 751 Great Questions for Hiring the Best Person, How to Ace the Brainteaser Job Interview, and 201 Best Questions to Ask On Your Interview. As a corporate ghostwriter, John has partnered with number of Fortune 1000 executives.
John and Erik discuss his latest book, Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust. This book, which describes the benefits that leaders accrue when they embrace apology rather than shy away from it, is squarely in keeping with his philosophy of personal accountability, humility, and transparency.
[This bio passage was adapted from John’s website, EffectiveApology.com.]
tompeters.com asks ...
John, what prompted you to write this book?
JK: I remember the exact moment that I had the idea for this book. I was asked to write a speech for the CEO of a Fortune 500 software company. His company was being hammered for some marketing practices that were probably more exuberant than legal. So he asked me for advice on how to frame the speech.
I said, "Why not acknowledge what the company did, apologize, say what you learned from the experience and that you won't do it again?"
The CEO bristled at me, and he said, "I never apologize. I'm sorry, that's just the kind of guy I am."
In effect, he apologized to you.
JK: I know. It was in that moment of contradiction and reflexive paranoia that I decided there's something powerful at work here, and it'd be useful to take a look at why we're so resistant to acknowledging a mistake, apologizing for it, and moving on.
On the front page of your website, it says, "Executives who are willing to say, 'I'm sorry,' earn more than executives who would never apologize." And, "The stock prices of companies with CEOs who accept accountability are higher than those of companies run by CEOs who don't."
JK: Both seem to be the case. The study behind the first phrase was done by an online pearl retailer called The Pearl Outlet. They found a correlation between willingness to apologize and income. There's a very definite correlation. Individuals who report that they tend to apologize make more money, and individuals who report that they are reluctant to apologize make less money. And if you think about it, it's not a very surprising statistic. People who apologize tend to create better relationships and engender more loyalty. Those people tend to rise in any organization. In contrast, people who refuse to apologize just end up alienating everybody and tend to do less well in an organizational setting.
What about the CEO you mentioned? On the one hand, you're saying somebody who is going to succeed is probably a good apologizer. Yet this guy, for instance, clearly is not.
JK: Oh, I don't think there's a contradiction. These are tendencies, and there are no hard and fast rules. By the way, within four years, this guy was fired from his position and barely escaped prison.
Well, that seems to be a common situation these days.
JK: Right. And I believe that had this guy been more contrite and forthright, he'd have had a much better outcome.
Clearly, for him, there was a stigma to apologizing. He's not the only one. People generally don't like to apologize. Why is that?
JK: Yes, apology has taken on a stigma in the past of weakness and vulnerability. Only recently have those associations changed.
I have a theory about why it's so hard for leaders to apologize. We live in a competitive society. One of the aspects of competition is that we don't like to admit that we're wrong or that we've failed. That's especially true for men in the Western world. There's a flipside to that as well. Many of us, even the most successful, walk around with a deep sense of insecurity, as if our flaws are going to be discovered.
We're all impostors!
JK: Exactly. We're tempted to think that our leaders have somehow transcended those feelings. But they haven't. So, there they are up on top; they're making huge bucks because they're so smart, seasoned, and great. They make a mistake. Now they're trapped because if they admit the mistake, then maybe they will be the impostors that they think they are. So they really resist that. As followers, we don't do them any favors by putting our leaders up on pedestals and expecting more perfection from them than we expect from ourselves. We have a role in this, too. It all adds to the phenomenon of leaders posturing for infallibility.
When they make a mistake, it's very difficult for them to say, "Whoa. I made a mistake. I'm human."
Isn't there a shift happening now with that notion? Many people writing about leadership, Tom Peters included, are basically saying, "We're not perfect, we're all human. Admit your mistakes, and move on." They seem to be redefining this role of leadership. The old role of leadership came from wartime. I think we're still feeling the hangover of World War II in some respects.
JK: I agree with you. It comes out of a real command and control atmosphere. The attitudes towards apology have shifted in the last five years. The needle has moved remarkably so that now President Obama can apologize directly, and everybody sees that as a mark of confidence, not weakness, as a sign of humility and accountability, not vulnerability.
Yeah. Although I'm guessing there a lot of older guys out there who would like to point to it as weakness.
JK: Yes. They're going to try to spin it that way, but they're conspicuously failing. And they look more like hangers-on of an old tradition that's not worthy of respect anymore.
There's a concept you repeated a few times. "Apologies unmask all the hopes, desires, and uncertainties that make us human. Because at the moment of genuine apology, we confront our humanity most fully." Can you talk a little bit about that?
JK: An apology is not just for person we offend, but for ourselves as well. Most of us picture an apology as something we offer those hurt by our actions. That part's important, and for the sake of the victims we create, we have do the apology right. What I hope my book adds to the conversation is an insight that apology is really about a conversation with ourselves, and that when we have that conversation and can admit to ourselves what we did, real growth is possible.
Apologizing brings us a healthy dose of self-awareness, keeps us accountable, generates clarity about the situation we're in, and how to avoid it in the future. That's the big piece: avoiding it later on. Denying the offense and denying the mistake traps us into a situation where we tend to repeat the mistake because we don't confront it.
What makes for an effective apology?
JK: I think all significant apologies have five pieces, which I call The Five R's. First is recognition. That means acknowledging the offense with real specificity.
Responsibility is the second R. When you accept responsibility for something, you claim moral agency for the offense, squarely and solely, without excuses. Underlying it all is the intention to rebuild a valued relationship.
The third R is remorse. What's required is simply using the words "I'm sorry" or "I apologize." The use of these words is non-negotiable. Without using those specific words, you may as well not bother with the whole thing.
You mentioned that "I'm sorry" seems to be more effective. Is that true?
JK: I can't prove that. To my ears, "I'm sorry" has a more direct, more contrite ring than "I apologize." But I'm not going to parse it to death.
I'd agree with that. It also seems "I'm sorry" is always said as "I'm sorry," whereas when people use the word apologize—you have some fabulous examples in your book—they say things like, "I'd like to apologize." They're not actually saying they're sorry; they're putting you in some future state where maybe they'll actually do it. But they never seem to get around to it, right?
JK: Exactly. The apology has to be there. And the fourth R is restitution. This is, to me, perhaps the most important of the steps because it's the one that can demonstrate concrete action. You can't talk your way out of a situation you acted your way into.
JK: You acted your way into it, you have to act your way out of it. Restitution is the way you do that. For example, if I borrow your cell phone, Erik, and I lose it, it won't do for me to say, "Oh, Erik, I'm so terribly sorry. I lost your cell phone. It was all my fault. Good luck."
JK: The contrition may be real, but you deserve a next step. And that's for me as the offender to acknowledge that, "Hey, I need to replace your cell phone." Restitution is designed to restore the scales that the offender unbalanced by the offense.
Finally, the fifth R is repetition. It's something that a lot of folks leave out. It's the promise not to repeat the behavior. To apologize for being late every time we meet, I need to say something like, "And I promise to be on time in the future."
But the next time you're late—
JK: You absolutely get to call me on that.
I'll have a point of reference. I can say, "You promised me last time that you wouldn't be late again."
JK: That's right. You have every reason to be upset and to discount my previous apology and to refuse to accept future apologies.
JK: Those are The Five R's. Each step has nuances and we can go through them quickly and give some examples.
Yes. I think this is a very important part. I don't think many other people have parsed apology in this way. Let's go through the nuances.
JK: We'll start with recognition. When you go through the steps in your head, you need to basically answer three questions: what am I apologizing for, what was the impact of my behavior on the victim, and what social norm or value did I violate? If you can be clear in your head about those three questions, you have a really good shot at a recognition statement that will make for an effective apology.
JK: I think it's probably fairer to say he left out some things to apologize for. His apology for his affair is reasonably complete; there's a lot to admire about it. But, the recognition step was not complete, because what Sanford failed to recognize is that there is another class of victims. And those victims were most specifically his staff who put out a false statement. Essentially, the Governor made his staff accomplices in a cover-up. That's a real offense.
Moreover, Sanford failed to apologize to the citizens of South Carolina for dereliction of duty. He disappeared for five, six days, and nobody knew where he was. That's just not appropriate for a governor. Imagine if anyone working for the government of South Carolina took off for five days without telling anyone. Unless the governor insists on one set of rules for the executive and another set for everyone else, he must accept the same consequences.
The case of Mark Sanford is interesting. He's apologized to his wife. He probably apologized individually to his staff. But if he apologizes to his citizens for abandoning the helm for five days, then that is an offense for which he could be expected to resign. Do you think that by not saying that, he's creating a bit of a cover?
JK: I think he's justifiably focusing on the offense to his wife and family. That's why I think he should resign so he can focus on rebuilding his family. The offender has to focus on what's important to the victim. For example, let's say you go to the doctor to have a wart removed on your left toe, and they somehow amputate your right toe.
I hate it when that happens. [Laughter]
JK: The doctor has a choice. He can make a decision to say, "Erik, I'm very sorry. I made a mistake, and I took off the wrong toe," [Laughter] and take his lumps, and say, "Listen, I know this is going to impose costs on you. I'm sorry. We're going to reimburse you. We're going to fix you up and make restitution for your loss. I made a mistake, and I'm sorry." Or he can deny it, admit nothing, and be silent. Which is better way to go? I say, and evidence shows, that doctors who acknowledge what they did, take responsibility, and make appropriate restitution are sued less often and their costs go down. There's clear evidence for that.
JK: So while it's possible that people avoid apology because they fear the consequences, it's a fear that's overblown.
I think we all know that. We think, "Oh, he's saying that because he doesn't want to get sued." What you're saying is that it's about just being human with another human, right?
JK: Absolutely. We are remarkably forgiving when we are confronted by a contrite person, a humble person, who says, "I made a mistake, and please accept my apology."
But where's my toe? Obviously, you would have to give me some money. The point is, if he says, "I'm sorry. I cut off the wrong toe," and he doesn't try to blame his assistant or three other people, then I'm more likely to say, "I accept your apology and I only need 200 thousand dollars." Instead, if he doesn't even apologize, then I'm going to sue him for 2 million.
JK: Yes. Apology is not cost-free, it's just cheaper than the alternative.
The alternative is stonewalling, denial, and deception. And we all know that the cover-up is worse than the underlying crime.
In legal circles, there is a little device that lawyers use called ABC. First, you need a professional, like a doctor, that's A. B stands for Bad Act, cutting off the wrong toe or some other malpractice. And C is the cover-up. Those are the three ingredients that plaintiffs' lawyers look for.
JK: And if you can deny the plaintiff's lawyers the cover-up, they won't even take the case. The last thing they want to face in court is a contrite doctor on the witness stand, a doctor who's apologized and who's made an offer of restitution. Nobody wants to cross-examine that doctor.
Who they want on that stand is a doctor who, immediately after doing something wrong, shut off all communications, wouldn't talk, denied wrongdoing, blamed the anesthesiologist or the nurses, or falsified the records. That's the cover-up part, that's the part that buys lawyers their new yacht.
So I tell doctors, "Your best bet when you make a mistake is to just fess up to it quickly, apologize, find an award that works for both parties, and move on."
Time is of the essence?
JK: Absolutely. The longer you hold on to your secrets, the more they mature. Unspoken apologies are like unpaid parking tickets. The longer you hold on to them, the greater the penalty you'll have to eventually pay.
Restitution seems to be a tricky thing. You mention the story of a guy who has a bad divorce. He felt his wife took him to the cleaners, as they say. She had sent numerous letters that he sent back. Eventually he opened a letter from her. In the letter, she apologizes. It's a great apology. It does the responsibility and remorse, but doesn't really offer restitution. According to this guy, all he wanted was to hear her say, "I'm returning a small part of what I took from you as an expression of my remorse." It sounded almost like an ashtray might have done it.
Is it that we need even a symbolic thing, just to show empathy from the other party?
JK: I think it's more than that. We are very sensitive to dignity and being humiliated. We're so fearful because we really can't tell if an apology is sincere. What if we let our guard down and they do it to us again? That's the place of fear that a lot of people come from. So I think restitution, a gesture, is the most concrete way we can be persuaded that this apology is really sincere.
The physical object or money denotes sincerity, at least in our minds.
JK: Exactly. It's just to restore the balance a little bit. Even a little bit sometimes makes a difference.
With Bernard Madoff, no one cares about his sentence, but they do care about restitution.
People seem to just want him to rot in hell.
JK: Often those are not the direct victims. Direct victims have moved past the burning anger because they have to. They can't live with that kind of anger and bitterness, most of them. What they want now is to focus on going forward. And the only thing that helps them now is restitution.
There's not going to be much of that, though, right?
JK: Hard to tell. We're told that there's a chance for some partial compensation for some of these folks.
To your point, if someone's lost a couple million dollars, if they get even 100 thousand dollars back, that really helps?
JK: I don't know. What do you think? Would it help you?
If I spent a lifetime socking this money away, this wouldn't change my situation.
JK: No, it probably won't. And we may be up against one of those rare situations where apology has no power. It's rare, but I suppose it happens.
Because the offense is just too great?
JK: I don't know. This is a very interesting topic for me, and I haven't thought it through completely in terms of the limits of apology. Certainly time is required.
Can you apologize for the Holocaust? Willy Brandt, the former Chancellor of Germany, tried. In the book, I have an example of the non-verbal apology that was considered very effective by Willy Brandt on December 7, 1970. That was 25 years after the end of the war. Meanwhile, Germany had done a lot of the important footwork for the apology. It had apologized in public. It really did a lot of work within the country to be contrite. They had paid reparations to Israel and Jews around the world. It fixed its textbooks that denied Nazism. And so for Willy Brandt to go to Poland, to commemorate something about the Warsaw Ghetto, and to just kneel at that memorial was a wordless act of contrition that was probably more powerful than any statement he could have delivered.
So if you can apologize for the Holocaust, maybe a Ponzi scheme is not something that's impossible to apologize for under the right conditions.
JK: Most of us never have to face that. Most of us face unintentional acts or oversights. I don't know many people who wake up in the morning deciding they're going to offend people that day.
I think I know a couple. [Laughter]
JK: Usually what we end up with are unintentional acts that we nevertheless need to be fully accountable for. I have a couple of tips on what not to do.
I think you call them "apology-busters." What I hope I had said is that his apology for his affair is reasonably complete. There's a lot to admire about it.
JK: One apology buster is to focus the apology on what your intentions were. The victim doesn't care about your intentions. What victims care about are the consequences of your behavior. It's useless to say, "I never intended to steal from you or to betray you or to lie to you." The responsibility step requires you to say, "I betrayed you. I lied to you," and leave the excuses and the intentions for another day.
Another tip is to avoid any use of the word if, as in, "I certainly apologize if I offended you." And, "I'm sorry if you considered my remarks offensive." The word if qualifies the apology out of any apology.
That's the de-apologizer.
JK: Yes. Another apology buster is the word but. It negates the apology, as in, "I'm very sorry, but you started it." Using the word but is almost always guaranteed to botch an apology.
Those words are ways that we get out of accepting total responsibility. You're saying a true apology requires you to place yourself at the center of the problem and just say, "I did that and I'm sorry." That's hard to do.
JK: It's very hard to do. We have some very bad habits in our world. Explaining ourselves is one of them. When we explain ourselves, we tend to excuse ourselves.
We have a hard time explaining ourselves because we're not at all clear about what compels us to do the things we do, right?
JK: Exactly. We're wandering around in a fog most of the time. And so when we're caught in the headlights, we panic. Before we apologize, we should rehearse it. Otherwise we mess it up by unintentionally injecting all these apology busters.
Right, which only exacerbates the situation.
JK: Let me add two more things to avoid. First, avoid using the constructions "I want to apologize" or "I'd like to apologize". It may sound like an apology, but it's no more about actually apologizing than saying "I want to lose weight" is about actually losing weight. In both cases, you have to do the hard work.
Finally, I really recommend that apologies be cast in the active voice. Say, "I'm sorry I hit you," instead of "I'm sorry you were hit" or, "It's too bad that your reputation was damaged," when it was me who damaged the reputation.
It should be, "I'm sorry I damaged your reputation."
JK: Exactly. The classic form of this is, "Mistakes were made." We're trying to avoid responsibility. We're trying to avoid our accountability for something.
Boy, it really starts with accepting responsibility. Eventually you can figure out how to add the other four R's, but you really have to clinch that opening.
JK: Agreed. Let me end with one thought that I think summarizes the entire thrust of my stand on apology.
Apology should be more about sensitivity to the victim than redemption for the offender. You should keep your victim's needs in mind rather than your own. If you can keep that in mind, then I think you'll be on a pretty good path to framing an apology that's effective, that will be accepted, and that will restore the relationship, which is the ultimate goal.
That reminds me of a tweet I read this morning. It said, "We have to not hang on to dumb conflicts or distances in our lives. Things can change so quickly. It's just not worth it not to be close."
JK: Getting closer is the goal of apology.
It seems that your book is about the same thing, that life changes quickly, and you should repair relationships before you lose the opportunity to do so through death.
JK: Yes. Whenever I talk about apology to business groups, a question consistently comes up, and that is, "How can I apologize and still be right?"
How do you answer that?
JK: I say, "You can't. You've got to choose one or the other. You can cling to being right, and sometimes that's a legitimate position to cling to. Or you can give up your fight with history, and accept that the victim's perspective is correct."
That's a hard place for leaders to go. It's also hard for people in families. We all have these estrangements because someone said something or did something many years ago. You can either cling to the position that you were right and they were wrong, and preserve the estrangement, or you can finally say, "I'm happy to have them be right for now."
That's wonderful. John, thank you so much for your time.
JK: Thank you, Erik.