Civilization depends on the apology. When humans interact and something goes wrong, the apology builds a bridge that enables us to move forward.
But apologies are failing more often. Two reasons: First, organizations aren’t humans, and organizations often seek to avoid or industrialize the human work that civilization needs. And secondly, the apology is a complex organism, one with many structures and purposes, and our culture models (or fails to model) how it’s supposed to be done.
Consider that we can say, “I’m sorry” at a funeral even if we didn’t murder the deceased, but we also say, “I’m sorry” when we bump into someone in a crowded train station and “I’m sorry” when we get caught shoplifting. Three different situations, with fundamentally different amounts of complicity, blame or guilt.
When someone accidentally bumps into us, we don’t expect compensation or punishment, but we very much want to be acknowledged. On the other hand, acknowledgment is insufficient when someone sought to profit from our pain.
We can start by asking, “what is this apology for?” What does the person need from us?
- To be seen
- Punishment for the transgressor
- Stopping the damage
The first category is the one that most demands humanity, and it’s also the most common. A form letter from a company does not make us feel seen. Neither does an automated text from an airline when a plane is late. One reason that malpractice victims sue is that surgeons sometimes have trouble with a genuine apology. This non-human behavior is getting worse and is being celebrated in parts of our culture (mistaking it for strength), which leads to a demand for the other three.
Compensation is the ancient tradition of seeking to make a victim whole. Unless the injury is solely financial, financial compensation is insufficient, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t tried to build systems that use money to atone for ills.
Punishment is different from compensation. Punishment allows the victim to feel seen, because he or she is now aware that the transgressor feels some pain as well. (Punishment is unsatisfying to the victim if he or she is unaware of it). Punishment is economically suspect, though, because other than the second-order feeling of being seen, the punishment doesn’t directly help the person who was injured. It also can spiral forward, leading to ever more damage.
And finally, stopping the damage, which often co-exists with the other three needs. This is the affirmative act of making sure it doesn’t happen again. This is correcting the website so that the next person who reads it won’t see the same error. This is fixing the railing so the next visitor won’t trip and fall. This is the organization investing time and energy to actually improve its systems.
Compounding these totally different sorts of apologies is the very industrial idea of winning. Victims have been sold that it’s not enough that your compensation is merely helpful, but it has to be the most. That you won the biggest judgment in history. That the transgressor isn’t simply going to jail, but is going to jail forever, far away, in solitary confinement. We’ve all ended up in a place where one of the ways to feel seen is to also feel like you came in first place compared to others.
There’s an old cartoon–an irate customer is standing at the complaints desk of a store, clearly not mollified by the clerk. She then asks, exasperated, “well, what if we shut down the store, burn it to the ground and run the owner out of town… will that be enough?”
The challenge that organizations have is that they haven’t trained, rewarded or permitted their frontline employees to exert emotional labor to create human connection when it’s most needed.
The traveler goes straight from, “my flight is overbooked,” to “I want a million frequent flyer miles and a first class ticket on the next flight.”
The patient goes from, “the scar on my leg isn’t healing,” to “I’m going to sue you.”
And the most common unseen situation is the customer who walks away, forever, because you have a broken system and you’re not hearing from your people about how to fix it.
Organizations that refuse to see the pain they’re causing because they’re afraid of being held responsible have missed the point. You’re already being held responsible. The question is what to do about it? You can stonewall, bureaucratize and delay, and hope that the system will suffice…
The alternative is to choose to contribute to connection by actually apologizing. Apologizing not to make the person go away, but because they have feelings, and you can do something for them. Apologizing with time and direct contact, and following it up by actually changing the defective systems that caused the problem.
“Yikes, I’m sorry you missed your flight–I really wish that hadn’t happened. The next flight is in an hour, but that’s probably going to ruin your entire trip. Are you headed on vacation?”
“You’re right, you booked a front-facing seat, but you got one that’s facing backward–and I hear you about getting motion sickness, my sister does too… I know that Amtrak has been having trouble with our systems, but I have the hotline number of the head of ops–I’m going to call and let them know.”
“Yeah, I shouldn’t have written that review. I was in a bad mood when I wrote it. I apologize. But, to set the record straight, I’m going to delete that review and write a new one, just as loud, but this time telling people about how much you care.”
Consider that an effective apology has a few elements to it:
1. You know what sort of apology you’re offering.
2. You share your story with the aggrieved as well as hearing their story, thus becoming human, and then taking the time to help them feel seen by you.
3. You engage with the person who was harmed and find out, beyond being seen, what would help them move forward, noting that it’s impossible to make complete amends.
[It’s worth noting that these are not the same steps you’d take if you’re simply hoping the person will shut up and go away, without you seeing them. That’s not going to happen, and acting as if it will, will only make your problem worse.]
Empathy –> Connection –> Trust