So why do leaders persist with damaging non-apologies

Insincere and devious apologies are not just discourteous and unwise.  They can also seriously damage reputations and hinder issue management.

The most recent entry into the non-apology Hall of Shame is Defence Minister David Johnston after he told the Senate that he would not trust the government’s shipbuilder Australian Submarine Corporation to “build a canoe.”

Minister Johnston’s subsequent explanation (issued only after political and public outrage and Prime Ministerial intervention) is worth reading in detail.  “I did not intend to cause offence and I regret that offence may have been taken. Of course I was directing my remarks at a legacy of issues and certainly not the workers in ASC, who, I regret, may have taken offence at those remarks.”

He tried to defend his comment as being a “rhetorical flourish” in the heat of Senate debate. However, the same cannot be said of his attempted apology.  We can only assume that this deliberate formula of words was crafted in a ministerial office somewhere by some taxpayer-funded “communications expert” who presumably thought it was clever to avoid using the word sorry.

Not surprisingly the Parliamentary Opposition launched a concerted attack on the feeble statement. It wasn’t clever, it wasn’t effective and, for a Cabinet Minister whose performance was already under attack, it certainly wasn’t career enhancing.

After everything we have learned, how can a non-apology carefully avoiding the word sorry be regarded as a winning strategy for any leader, in politics or in business.  At best it’s what journalist Fleur Anderson called “a feel-good mirage of contrition.”  At worst it’s a lose-lose idea which damages the reputation of the individual concerned, and also damages the issue they are attempting to manage.

As Forbes Magazine wisely concluded a while ago: “Next time you’re clearly in the wrong, take a deep breath, put aside your self-justification, your excuses, your blame, your defensiveness, and simply apologize.”

Most importantly, this is hardly new ground.  Every year seems to bring an embarrassing fresh crop of individuals and organisations who find that sorry is the hardest word.  There is even a social media site devoted entirely to real-life examples of how not to apologise. If only the same amount of effort put into avoiding the word sorry was instead put into sincere apologies and genuine remorse.   And the process is not that hard.

  • Don’t try to evade or divert personal responsibility
  • Don’t imagine that “it is regrettable” is the same as “I am really sorry”
  • Say you’re sorry
  • Say what you will do to avoid making the same mistake again

If you can’t do that – and mean it – perhaps you shouldn’t say anything.  To be effective, any apology must be swift and sincere. Apologies which are only grudging or reluctant, or are really non-apologies, can be worse than no apology at all.


About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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