The Psychology of Apology – Part 1 of 3: Admission

By Tom Davidson

While there are two more aspects to a good apology, a solid and specific admission of the behavior and its impacts is an absolute necessity. As a good leader, you may never have to make an apology of this kind or magnitude, but the elements are the same. Here’s what you need to know: 

People CAN handle the truth, despite what Jack Nicholson’s character thought in A Few Good Men, which is why you – as a leader – need to understand a little of the psychology of the apology and what to do about it. You’ll need it, and it can save (or even build) your reputation when you need it most.

As a hard-working professional and a leader, there is no way you can go through your career without needing to apologize to someone for something. If not you’re (1) not trying, (2) fooling yourself or (3) both. You will do one or all of the following:

• Make errors in judgment
• Make decisions that have unintended consequences
• Make mistakes in situations you have never experienced before
• Commit misdeeds when you should have known better

When these things happen, the only things preventing you from doing the right thing, which is to apologize, will be (1) unawareness of your error which is no excuse, (2) hubris because you think you are infallible or above giving an apology, (3) fear of consequences or (4) ignorance because you don’t know what to do or say. This blog series is about the latter.

In addition to equity, the three components of a good apology are the following:

Admission of the specific commission or omission of behavior
Taking personal responsibility for the mistake or misdeed
Demonstrating sincere contrition for what you have done and/or what has resulted

While the first part of this blog series will focus on the Admission, each blog will include a reminder that very few apologies will be successful without a degree of equity with your stakeholders. Equity is the psychological credit that you have in the bank with your stakeholders at the time of the apology, an account you are always investing in and withdrawing from in your career.

If there is too little there when the time for an apology arrives, your account will likely be overdrawn and show insufficient funds at a critical juncture. If you have earned sufficient equity with others over time, your apology might just be accepted, especially if it includes all of the elements above beginning with the following.

The Admission
Admitting guilt is only the first part of a complete apology, and you should consider all three of the following when the time comes.

• The admission should be specific. You need to say exactly what you have done or overlooked in the commission of your mistake or misdeed. If you are non-specific, you will be seen as side stepping or glossing over the truth.
• The admission should be timely. Waiting too long will make people suspect that the only reason you are admitting guilt is that you have been caught, are about to be found out or have insufficient courage as a leader.
• The admission should be about the impact, not the intent. If you try to absolve yourself by saying that you did not intend to do the deed or overlook the consequences, then you will be seen as shifting responsibility. Your pardon will have to come from others.

In 2012, Golf Champion Tiger Woods held a press conference to voice a lengthy and elaborate apology. While some found the highly orchestrated and precisely read apology to be less than contrite, one of the things Woods did well was to be specific in his admission. For example, at one point he said, “The issue involved here was my repeated irresponsible behavior. I was unfaithful. I had affairs. I cheated. What I did is not acceptable.”

It had taken Woods almost three months to make a public apology, although he admitted guilt in writing several times before his in-person statement. He also spoke of the impacts on his wife and supporters, which added to the credibility of his apology and finally made it possible for him to move forward in the eyes of many of his stakeholders.

While there are two more aspects to a good apology (covered in the next two blogs in this series) a solid and specific admission of the behavior and its impacts is an absolute necessity. As a good leader, you may never have to make an apology of this kind or magnitude, but the elements are the same. Put them into practice when necessary and your equity will rise not fall.

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