The Psychology of Apology – Part 3 of 3: Contrition

By Tom Davidson

Saying the right words when giving your admission and taking personal responsibility is necessary but not enough. For an apology to stick, you also need to show real remorse, sincere sorrow and unrehearsed regret. See what I mean in the final post of this series. 

If you lead for long, you’ll eventually need to apologize for something. No one is infallible. Mistakes are inevitable, and misdeeds are a real possibility. As a result, you need to know the principles of a good apology so that you can recover from your errors as quickly as possible, maintain your reputation wherever possible, and build your equity in every way possible.

In addition to earned equity in advance, 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 two parts of this blog series focused on the admission and taking responsibility, this one will address contrition. Before doing so, here’s one last reminder that no matter how complete your apology, it will fall flat if you have not earned sufficient equity in advance. “Equity” is the content of a psychological bank account that you have with your stakeholders as a result of

• Earned respect and/or admiration for worthy accomplishments
• Love and/or friendship from important supporters and stakeholders
• Loyalty from your previously good leadership or outstanding service

Sincere Contrition
Saying the right words when giving your admission and taking personal responsibility is necessary but not enough. For an apology to stick, you also need to show real remorse, sincere sorrow and unrehearsed regret. By the very nature of contrition, this cannot and should not be scripted as it was for Tiger Woods. It has to come from the heart, so put your notes away when it’s time to address this important part of a good apology.

To accomplish sincere contrition, talk about what you’re sorry for, try answering one or more of these questions

• How has your behavior impacted your team?
• How has your behavior affected your family?
• How has your behavior impacted your organization?
• How has your omission affected your direct reports?
• What impact has your oversight had on your team?
• How has your lack of action affected other people’s lives?
• How has your decision caused unintended consequences?

IRS Case in Point
Complete apologies are so far missing in remarks from Internal Revenue Service executives for targeting conservative groups regarding tax-exempt status procedures.

Former IRS Commissioner Doug Shulman appeared to show contrition, saying that he “regretted” that the debacle happened on his “watch.” But he refused to admit anything or take personal responsibility. His careful word choices word parsing before the Senate Finance Committee this month was a painful example of someone dodging the leadership and legal implications of his previous position.

Outgoing IRS Acting Commissioner Steven Miller admitted in cautious lexicon about “mistakes that were made and the poor service that we provided,” but he was combative rather than contrite and accepted no responsibility during Congressional hearings. Neither did he tell the whole truth in previous testimony, so his equity was low with Congress and the public.

Lois Lerner, the head of the Internal Revenue Service’s division on tax-exempt organizations, gave faint admission but fell short of an apology before “taking the Fifth” in Congressional hearings. She said that “low-level” employees used ill-thought-out organizational “shortcuts” that were “absolutely inappropriate,” calling their actions “an error in judgment…but that’s what they did.” While an admission that misdeeds occurred, she did not admit to any wrong-doing on her part, take personal responsibility or show any kind of contrition.

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