A week rarely goes by without a CEO or public figure issuing an apology. Often it’s warranted, such as the recent apology issued by Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, who, in an interview with Axios, compared the death of a woman hit by one of his company’s autonomous vehicles to the killing of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia.
But in a social media world where outrage is easily shared, sometimes apologies are not necessary. In fact, apologizing when you don’t need to can destroy your career or company, says Sean O’Meara, coauthor of The Apology Impulse: How Business Ruined Sorry and Why We Can’t Stop Saying It.
“It’s time to stop abusing the word ‘sorry’ and restore some credibility to the act of apologizing,” he says. “Our hypersensitivity to the smallest criticism has us apologizing for the most trivial things and withholding big apologies when they’re actually required.”
Whether you’re acting on behalf of a company or yourself, O’Meara suggests taking a few steps before responding to criticism by using the words “I’m sorry”:
Determine if you’re at fault
If you have breached someone’s rights, an apology is in order. But when the failure isn’t necessarily obvious or you’ve hurt someone’s feelings, you need a period of honest self-reflection, says O’Meara.
“One of my clients, a logistics company, was criticized on Twitter,” he says. “Through no fault of their own, a delivery hadn’t been completed because their client hadn’t completed the paperwork properly, and the client escalated it to social media.”
When O’Meara, a Manchester-based publicist, asked if they were going to respond to the tweet by saying they were sorry, they told him, “Well, we haven’t done anything wrong,” he says. “And they were right.”
O’Meara suggests giving yourself an hour before reacting to any criticism, whether it’s on social media or through email. “Be honest,” he says. “Did you fail in some way? Did the conduct in question contradict your policies or the customer’s rights or expectations of conduct? If so, proceed with an apology.”
If not, clarify your position
If you have nothing to be sorry for, you must not say “sorry,” urges O’Meara. Instead, clarify your position, but avoid alluding to contrition. For example, “Thanks for your feedback, we’ll take your points on board, but we stand by our decision/action.”
“Don’t clarify that you did nothing wrong, but then apologize if anyone was offended,” adds O’Meara.
Sometimes a customer just wants to understand. O’Meara says a good example of this happened when Ben & Jerry launched a new flavor called “Resist,” partnering with activist Linda Sarsour. Some customers were angry, feeling like the ice cream maker shouldn’t partner with someone whose views were considered controversial.
“Instead of apologizing, Ben & Jerry’s issued an explanation,” says O’Meara. “They said, ‘Thanks for the feedback. We may not agree on everything, but the work that Linda has done to promote women’s rights is undeniably important and we are proud to join her in that effort.’ Years of authentic commitment to social causes empowered them to explain without saying sorry.”
Or do nothing
You can also say nothing, especially if you have no plan to change how you do business. Saying nothing is preferable to trying to appease your critic. “When organizations aren’t at fault but behave like they are, we see the most costly and humiliating failures of crisis communications,” says O’Meara.
A big part of the apology problem is that the line between accepting feedback and being sorry is blurring, says O’Meara. “Too many of us appear to believe the only response to negative feedback is to say sorry,” he says. “We all need to stand firmer and be surer of our ground. We must learn to accept criticism without reflexively apologizing and making promises of doing better that we have no intention of keeping.”