Extracting Lessons from Failed Apologies

Failed apologies can serve as valuable lessons. These examples teach us about the importance of perspective-taking, considering the audience, demonstrating genuine remorse through actions, acting promptly in times of crisis, and accepting responsibility while providing clear commitments to change. By learning from these failures, individuals and organizations can enhance their ability to deliver effective apologies when faced with their own mistakes or wrongdoing.

Josh Ether

8/7/20202 min read

When we witness public apologies gone wrong, there is an opportunity to learn valuable lessons. One such instance was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, which became one of the worst environmental disasters in recent history. BP's CEO at the time, Tony Hayward, delivered an apology that fell short of expectations. He expressed his desire to have his life back, focusing more on himself rather than the impact of the spill on others. This self-centered apology drew swift criticism, even from BP employees, and ultimately led to Hayward losing his job. From this experience, we can glean the importance of perspective-taking in effective apologies. Understanding that others may be suffering and acknowledging their pain is crucial for delivering a meaningful apology.

Shifting our focus to another industry, we encounter Lululemon, a company that faced issues with the quality of their fabrics in 2013. Chip Wilson, the chairman and founder, made a remark suggesting that the problem was with women's bodies, rather than the pants themselves. Later, he issued an apology, but it was directed towards the employees rather than the customers. This demonstrates the significance of considering the perspective of the audience receiving the apology. Different stakeholders may require distinct approaches and targeted apologies.

Moving on to Tiger Woods, who faced marital issues in 2009, we find a flawed apology characterized by lashing out at the media. Although he eventually expressed his profound apology, the timing was unfortunate as he immediately embarked on a luxurious vacation on his extravagant yacht. This display of opulence undermined the sincerity of his remorse, as it contradicted the notion of paying penance for one's mistakes. This emphasizes the importance of demonstrating genuine remorse through actions aligned with the apology.

Reflecting on a different scenario from 1999, Coca-Cola faced a crisis when reports of dizziness and nausea arose after consumers drank their products. The CEO at the time, Douglas Ivester, opted for a low-profile approach, waiting for the issue to blow over. However, this strategy backfired as the media sensationalized the situation, leading to massive product recalls and significant damage to Coca-Cola's reputation. This highlights the need for prompt and proactive responses in times of crisis. Waiting for investigations or hoping for issues to resolve themselves is not an effective strategy. Companies should prioritize taking swift action to address concerns, demonstrating care and concern for their customers.

Another failed apology took place in the case of Volkswagen (VW), which was found to be cheating on emissions testing. During a hearing in Congress, the head of VW's US division offered a half-hearted apology that fell short in multiple ways. Firstly, the absence of the company's CEO gave the impression of limited accountability. Secondly, the apology included deflections of blame and a lack of commitment to change. A successful apology requires accepting responsibility, providing clear solutions, and demonstrating a genuine commitment to change.