The Psychology of Apology – Part 2 of 3: Responsibility

By Tom Davidson

While the first part of this blog series focused on the Admission, this one will address Personal Responsibility. 

As a leader, your job includes risk, and part of that risk is the likelihood that you will make errors in judgment, decisions that have unintended consequences, and mistakes in situations you have never experienced before. As a result, you will need to apologize to people when you commit or omit certain behaviors, including the worst of times, committing a misdeed when you should have known better.

The news is full of examples of high-profile leaders offering apologies, some good, some bad and some downright ugly! Apologies that involve infidelity are sometimes particularly cruel in my view with the perpetrator asking the spouse to stand beside him at the podium (presumably as a show of support but with the ultimate impact of publicly humiliating her in the process (i.e., former Gov. Eliot Spitzer). Other bad examples include politicians who lie until the evidence mounts against them (i.e. former Gov. Mark Sanford).

Hopefully, these dramatic examples will never happen to you or anyone you know, but these illustrations and many others give us valuable insights about the psychology of apology. Because none of us are infallible, you’ll need to know what constitutes a good apology, even for those more minor transgressions you will surely be guilty of from time to time.

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 focused on the Admission, this one will address Personal Responsibility. Before doing so, a reminder that no matter how complete the apology, it will be ineffective without sufficient equity with your stakeholders, the psychological credit that you have earned in advance of the apology.

You might have earned equity through good leadership, humility or good works (as mentioned in the previous blog on this subject), or you might have earned equity through love or a long-time friendship. If you have, then your apology is more likely to land successfully. In any case, the second part of a good apology is taking personal responsibility.

Taking Personal Responsibility
Making the admission is the first part of a good apology, which includes being specific, timely and inclusive of the negative impact that resulted. Taking personal responsibility for the mistake or misdeed is the second. Building on part one, the admission; this component makes it clear where the fault lies. To help understand what taking personal responsibility is, here are three major characteristics of what taking personal responsibility is not:

Shifting blame directly on indirectly insinuating that someone else is actually at fault (i.e., the State Department’s talking points that originally blamed an inflammatory YouTube video for the Benghazi attack)
Misdirection that attempts to blame the accuser or innocent third parties (i.e., being offended by someone alleging a wrongdoing in order to make the accusation about someone else)
Defiance and outrage that amounts to “the big like” (i.e., how could someone that angry at being accuse of something actually be guilty of it?)

Ret. Gen. David Patreus minced no words when addressing USC veterans and ROTC candidates in March 2013 with the following: “Please allow me to begin my remarks this evening by reiterating how deeply I regret and apologize for the circumstances that led to my resignation from the CIA and caused such pain for my family, friends and supporters. I am also keenly aware that the reason for my recent journey was my own doing.” Patreus never shifted blame or misdirected others after his misdeeds were exposed. While this does not excuse his misconduct and misdirection during the time of his affair, it’s a good example of taking personal responsibility.

So far, we know that a good apology contains a specific admission and takes personal responsibility without blamestorming or misdirection. You might never be in a position similar to Patreus, but as a leader, you will certainly be in a position to apologize. In that case you also need to know the third element of a good apology, covered in the next part of this blog series.

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