Posted: May 4, 2001
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Article SummaryIf you want to know how apology and forgiveness work, ask a Catholic. The secular process, outlined in this column, closely tracks the Catholic process: admit you did it; then say you’re sorry; then correct the problem and compensate your victims; then do a penance. The evidence that going through this process reduces people’s outrage is even stronger than when I wrote the column. Today, even medical malpractice lawyers routinely urge their clients to apologize. But mostly for ego reasons, companies and government agencies still resist admitting they did it, letting themselves get yelled at, saying they’re sorry, or doing a penance. They are comfortable correcting the problem and compensating the victims – which rarely does much good without the other, more humiliating steps.

Saying You’re Sorry

Recent work with several clients has impressed on me again how hard it is for most companies and government agencies to apologize. (No, the Bush administration did not consult with me on China, nor did the Clinton administration talk to me about Lewinsky.) So I thought this might be a good time to go over the basics of saying you’re sorry.

But first, why is it so hard? Clients often claim the barrier to apologizing is legal. They say they’re afraid that greedy “victims” will take advantage of an apology to sue for damages. It’s true that a certain amount of legal adroitness is needed to make sure your apology doesn’t constitute an admission of liability. But in most jurisdictions apologizing without opening up the litigation floodgates isn’t too hard – and it’s getting easier as courts and legislatures recognize the importance of encouraging civility. In fact, an apology can actually improve a defendant’s legal position, by reducing the impulse of prospective plaintiffs to sue and by reducing the impulse of jurors to impose punitive damages. Both of these effects result from the powerful effect of apologies on outrage. It’s hard to stay angry at people who say they’re sorry – which makes apologizing one of the best and certainly one of the cheapest outrage reducers around.

The actual barrier to apologizing, I think, is internal outrage. Companies and agencies that have been caught doing something wrong often don’t feel apologetic; instead, they feel outraged at the critics who caught them and at the public that doesn’t understand why what they did wasn’t really so wrong after all. The dynamics of projection are such that the shame or guilt they almost manage to feel are often projected into outrage at someone else. My psychiatrist wife likes to call this “Battered Corporation Syndrome.”

There’s a wonderful parallel here that illustrates the relationship between outrage and greed. A greedy prospective plaintiff may try to take advantage of an apology to collect higher damages. An outraged prospective plaintiff, on the other hand, is likely to feel less outraged, and less inclined to sue, after getting an apology. Since more prospective plaintiffs are outraged than greedy (their lawyers are greedy), apologizing when you have done something wrong is good business as well as good manners. A greedy prospective defendant would notice this and apologize. But an outraged prospective defendant is too outraged to apologize. (I am not using “greedy” as an insult. Those of you who know what I charge know that I have nothing against greed. I’m simply contrasting two radically different motives. Greedy people – that is, self-interested, profit-oriented people – want to benefit themselves. Outraged people want to get even with you.)

This may explain why so many of the apologies that do make it through the corporate sphincter are so cramped. “We regret if any actions of our company might have caused you any difficulty.” First of all, “regret” has become too lawyerly a word to be useful; it’s the word for sorry when you’re not really sorry. And “any difficulty” doesn’t begin to capture how we felt when acrid green smoke started spewing out your stacks. And worst of all is “…if any actions of our company might have caused….” You’re supposed to know what you did, and know that you did it. Grammarians:  You can’t apologize in the subjunctive or the conditional.

I understand that knowing what you did is actually very complicated. Sometimes it’s clear already that people were damaged, but not clear (or not yet clear) whether it was your stuff that did the damage. Sometimes it’s clearly you, but hotly debated whether there was any damage. At the very least, you can always acknowledge how people feel – not “might feel,” but feel – and apologize for making them feel that way.

So how do you apologize? The reigning expert on apology and forgiveness in Western culture is the Catholic Church. Here, then, are the five steps to forgiveness according to Catholic doctrine (at least as perceived by this lapsed Jew):

Say what you did.

No subjunctives, no conditionals, no vague or veiled references:  “This is what we did wrong.” The more drama you can bring to your recounting of your misdeeds, the better. And don’t work too hard to tell your side of the story. Explain the extenuating circumstances, briefly, but don’t emphasize the extenuation more than the misbehavior. There is a seesaw operating here:  If you focus on what you did wrong, stakeholders are likely to focus on the reasons why it isn’t entirely your fault; if you focus on the reasons why it isn’t entirely your fault, stakeholders are likely to focus on what you did wrong. Think about how you discipline your children.

For example, a client is about to explain to 300 employees that the workplace, though not the working area itself, is contaminated with heavy metals at very high levels. The toughest issue will probably be that the company waited five months before telling. It had its reasons – mostly that it wanted to negotiate a mitigation protocol with the building owner first. And the company did test the working area immediately and thoroughly, to make sure there wasn’t a significant hazard to employees. Still, it was a serious mistake to keep employees in the dark. Management will need to say so … and the extenuating circumstances will need to be framed as reasons why it did the wrong thing, not as reasons why it wasn’t the wrong thing to do.

Say you’re sorry.

The task is to make your apology as heart-felt as you can, but without assuming liability (unless your lawyers and insurers will let you). “I regret what happened to you” is too impersonal. “I feel terrible about what I did” is good. “It’s all my fault” is dangerous.

Remember that you get no credit for apologizing unless you have first said what you did. And you get no credit for saying what you did unless you say it apologetically. I once had an oil industry client that took my advice to keep acknowledging its misbehavior until people’s outrage had declined. The outrage didn’t decline. It turns out the company’s acknowledgments sounded more proud than apologetic. I learned that the tone of the apology is as important as the content of the acknowledgment.

Very often there’s a “Step 1-1/2” between telling us what you did and saying you’re sorry. That’s shutting up while while people tell you how angry they are. This doesn’t have its own number because it’s not part of the Catholic Church’s procedure. God lets you move immediately from acknowledgment to repentance. But your stakeholders need time to berate you first. Premature preemptive apology (“PPA”?) is a typical male problem; husbands often say to wives, in effect, “I’m sorry. Now drop it.” Apologies work better if you let people vent their outrage first.

Make it right:  Correct the problem.

This is the step companies are good at. Even government agencies would rather correct the problem than acknowledge the problem. This comes up endlessly in my consulting:  The client wants to make it right without ever admitting that it was wrong. Sorry, no credit. Making it right is all you need to do, obviously, to correct the hazard; but it’s not all you need to do to correct the outrage.

But it is one of the things you need to do to correct the outrage! Apologizing for a risky situation is never a substitute for making the situation less risky.

Making it right doesn’t have to mean making it perfect. When repenting a sin, the Catholic Church doesn’t make you promise never to do it again; you must promise only to try never to do it again. The intention has to be genuine, and the progress has to be real. But promising more than you can deliver is a sure path to future outrage; stakeholders will feel betrayed when you cannot keep your excessive promises.

Make it right:  Compensate your victims.

This is the second half of making it right. You not only have to try not to sin again; you must also try to make whole those you have sinned against. Again, “try” is important here. Often it is impossible to make your victims whole. That is not an excuse for failing to compensate them at all.

Notice how important order is in the process of apology and forgiveness. When people are outraged, premature offers of compensation usually just make the outrage worse:   “How dare you try to bribe me. My family’s health is not for sale.” The compensation feels like an unacceptable substitute for saying you’re sorry and correcting the problem. Greedy people, unlike outraged people, respond to compensation offers by counteroffering. They see your offer as commerce, not bribery. But when you’re dealing with stakeholder outrage, you cannot offer compensation until you’ve acknowledged the problem, they’ve bawled you out, you’ve apologized thoroughly, and you’ve taken steps to prevent a recurrence.

Better still, don’t offer compensation at all. Wait until it’s demanded. The question here is whose outrage you are trying to reduce, your own or your stakeholders’. If they come away from a compensation discussion feeling victorious, and you come away feeling blackmailed, you got your money’s worth. If they come away feeling bribed, and you come away feeling philanthropic, you didn’t.

Do a penance.

The last step on the road to forgiveness is a penance – an “act of contrition” that symbolizes that you know you did something wrong. Religious penances are a private affair, but the secular process requires a public humiliation. Years ago I worked with a company that had contaminated several rivers and harbors with PCBs. Now the company was under pressure to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on dredging. Dredging is not usually environmentalists’ favorite remedy, especially when it will redissolve the contaminants from sediments into river water. But it has one very attractive feature:  It’s extraordinarily expensive, and thus constitutes a superb corporate penance. My challenge to my client was to try to come up with an alternative penance, at least as humiliating but a lot cheaper. The VP for EH&S thought I was crazy and moved the company’s response in a different direction.

Of course you can’t name your own penance. But you can have a few in mind, and even dangle them casually, lest your stakeholders come up with one that’s costlier than it needs to be. Just remember:  Without a penance, the process of apologizing isn’t over, the world isn’t working right, and we’re not ready to forgive you.

The least expensive penance, of course, is money you have already spent, or plan to spend for other purposes. Often the same expenditure you make on remedying the problem or compensating your victims can do double duty as your penance. Even repeated apologies can count as a penance. But nothing counts as a penance unless you characterize it that way. A current client is an industry association that has collectively spent a billion dollars solving a particular environmental problem. (Sorry about the vagueness here; I’m steering around a confidentiality agreement.) Now the industry faces a new source of a closely related toxin, much less hazardous but potentially just as big an outrage and just as expensive to fix. Much depends, I think, on how the industry frames that first billion dollar expenditure. If it is framed as voluntary, or as unnecessary, or (worst of all) as both voluntary and unnecessary, then the stakeholders may decide the industry hasn’t learned its lesson and may extract another really unnecessary billion dollar expenditure. On the other hand, if the first billion is characterized as a penance (as well as a way of correcting the prior problem), the prospects for avoiding outrage-motivated overregulation of the new source are much better. This is what a penance is for:  To demonstrate that you have learned your lesson. The penance completes the process of forgiveness.

I’ve wanted to say this to someone for years:  Now go and sin no more.

Copyright © 2001 by Peter M. Sandman

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