In the past few months, we have seen several high-profile instances of prominent individuals (all men) who acknowledged an error, but didn’t actually apologize for what they did. Joe Biden called Anita Hill and expressed regret for what she had to go through while testifying in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, but didn’t apologize. The musician Ryan Adams was accused of sexual indiscretions, and admitted that he is “not a perfect person,” but also did not apologize.
Getting an apology right is important, and a refusal to properly apologize can often make things worse.
As I discuss in my new book Bring Your Brain to Work, a good apology has four components.
- It starts with words that make it clear that you are apologizing. “I’m sorry” is a brilliant start for this.
- Next, you need to be clear about the action you took that was wrong.
- After that, you need to express a commitment to make a change in your behavior.
- Finally, you need to give specific examples of what you are going to do to fix problems that you caused with your actions.
Statements that do not address these four issues can leave the people to whom you have issued your non-apology cold.
So, why is it so hard for prominent individuals (particularly men) to issue an actual apology?
There are several intersecting factors.
In some cases, of course, the issue is a legal one. If someone publicly admits to an action that has legal consequences for them, then they may be evasive in their responses, because an admission of responsibility could have legal implications for them down the road. That puts these individuals in the position of having to make a public statement that addresses accusations or rumors, but doesn’t create legal problems down the line.
But, in many situations, the problem is not a legal one. Joe Biden could easily have taken responsibility for his part in the Clarence Thomas hearings, but he chose not to.
Part of the problem for prominent individuals is that there is a strange tension for people in public life between the public’s desire for retribution and a general belief in the human capacity to change and improve. There have been many high-profile cases of outrage against politicians and celebrities after discovering statements they made years in the past with calls to have those individuals punished. The calls for punishment may continue even if someone apologizes and presents evidence that they have changed over the years. Despite the desire we have for people to overcome mistakes, we may still hold prominent people accountable for things they did in the past that can make it hard for them to want to own up to their errors publicly.
That said, there are still many cases in which prominent people (again mostly men) could apologize and don’t.
Intention and power
Two other factors that play a role here are intention and power.
In some cases, the person who did something wrong focuses primarily on their intention when performing an action rather than the action itself. When people believe that their intentions are pure, it is hard for them to apologize, because they believe that the consequences of their actions were not really their fault.
On top of that, prominent people are often in a position of power. It can be difficult for people to see how their power influences the behavior of people around them. For example, many of the women that came forward to talk about lewd actions that the comedian Louis CK performed in front of them talked about how difficult it was to deal with the situation, because he had the potential to influence their careers.
Apologizing requires recognizing that the influence of the action is actually more important than the intention. If you have created a bad situation with your actions, then your intentions don’t matter much. You made a mess and you have to clean it up.
In addition, power creates two barriers to apology. One is that it requires owning up to the recognition that you have abused your power. People are often reluctant to face that. In addition, apologizing to someone and making a sincere promise to change actually shifts power from to the person who was wronged. It requires a person in a position of power to change his intentions and actions as a result of an accusation from a position who previously had less power. People in power are reluctant to give it up.
The biggest problem here is that many of us will take our cues about how to act from what we see happening in the public sphere. And so, we may be prone to avoid apologizing—particularly if we have some power in our own sphere. And if the most prominent men in society do not apologize, then that will also send a message that successful men do not issue apologies.
That would be a shame.
No matter who you are, it is important to be willing to engage in a true apology going all the way from “I’m sorry” to an expression of how you will change and what you will do to fix the problem. Success at work requires maintaining good relationships. No matter where you are on the food chain at work, you are guaranteed to make mistakes—and some of those mistakes will hurt the people around you. The people around you will respect you if you get a reputation for acknowledging your mistakes quickly and working to improve your behavior. On top of that, the more work you do to improve your behavior, the fewer mistakes you will make in the long-term.