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Published 09 August 2012 05:02, Updated 10 August 2012 10:43
Even in business, “sorry” really is the hardest word. Not least because executives fear the legal and commercial consequences of proffering an apology. The managing director of media training firm Clarity Solutions, Geoffrey Stackhouse, says a growing number of chief executives who want to say sorry for corporate wrongdoing are seeking advice on how best to deliver the message.
“There is a groundswell of executives who realise that the right kind of apology can save their brand and reputation as well as counteract litigation, whereas the wrong kind of statement, poorly delivered, will only inflame the situation,” Stackhouse says. “Stakeholder-savvy executives are seeking advice on how to deliver a controversial message.”
Some of the fear about publicly saying sorry stems from a misunderstanding of the legal implications. While there are minor discrepancies between state laws, an apology does not amount to an admission of guilt or liability in Australia.
“It doesn’t matter if it is an insincere expression of regret, a spontaneous admission of error or a heartfelt apology, commenting on feelings of guilt won’t determine liability,” Stackhouse says. “Courts decide that based on the law.”
The unfortunate irony of executives’ reluctance to say sorry is that a well-delivered and timely apology actually satisfies aggrieved parties and makes them less likely to pursue litigation. A 2001 study of medical complaints in Australia showed 97 per cent that received a properly delivered explanation and apology did not proceed with litigation. “The courts are full of angry people trying to overcome their hurt,” Stackhouse says. “If an explanation and empathy aren’t forthcoming, and quickly, then anger and conflict flares.” “That anger can manifest in a number of ways from taking business elsewhere, to going out of the way to publicly name, shame or defame.”
It is the reason why mastering the art of saying sorry is a valuable tool for all executives to have up their sleeve. “It is the public face of the company that must apologise or front the issue, not a spokesperson,” Stackhouse says. “It isn’t the time for internal politics – it’s about public perceptions.”
An effective apology needs to directly address the aggrieved party’s issues.
“The key is to hit the hurt, to show you understand the other person’s pain and anger,” Stackhouse says. “You have to show that you get it, that you understand and then demonstrate you are working to do what you can to remedy the situation.”
An insincere or limp expression of regret will worsen the matter because a failure to acknowledge responsibility will only enrage the other party.
“People know that everybody makes mistakes but what we can’t accept and what infuriates people is a cover-up,” Stackhouse says. ”When a professional comes clean and admits to having made a mistake, and puts some context to it, we can accept it and move on.”