The Art of the Apology: Organisational Bomb Disposal.

Over my career, I have learnt both the best and the worst ways to approach difficult situations[1]; the kind of situations that affect people’s lives and the reputation of your organisation. I was reminded of this recently whilst watching the unfolding of Truss’s brief premiership. When something goes wrong there are four key steps that every Leader must take, I think of them as being a kind of organisational bomb disposal.

  1. Own it
  2. Be truthful
  3. Make a heartfelt and meaningful apology
  4. Learn

 

I’ve used the analogy of bomb disposal because the ‘bad thing’, if not handled well, starts a chain of explosive events that keep going off, apparently out of any real control until there is  one final explosion that burns out all the remaining oxygen. This might be the failure (and resignation) of the leader/s, the failure of the organisation or both. Even, if it doesn’t get to that point, the reputational damage is immense and will linger on, affecting the long-term future of all involved. Bomb disposal at an organisational level takes both self-knowledge, courage, and expertise.

Bomb disposal experts make it look easy, snip a few wires here, maybe a controlled small explosion (emphasis on the word controlled) and in the best-case scenario, nothing at all. This doesn’t mean nothing has happened, it has, but by averting a worse disaster, the experts have gained time to think and time to learn for the future. Expertise is acquired through practice until it becomes an unconscious mastered skill. Leader’s can learn this practiced approach by making the four steps of bomb disposal an everyday way to approach any smaller issue[2] so that if or when the worst happens, they respond automatically with the right approach.  The approach that is both right for them and the people affected. This sounds easy but it isn’t, it’s a skill.

  1. Own it

When something goes wrong, our natural stress response kicks in fight or flight. Blood flows to our extremities and adrenalin rises. It’s hard to think clearly and strategically. Our instincts at this point are to evade acceptance through denial, avoidance, or obsessing about the fairness of the situation. We can look to shift the blame and the ownership to others; this is where you often see leaders sacrificing another member of their team on the altar of public opinion in the hope of saving themselves. Avoiding ownership inevitably prolongs the situation, providing the opportunity for even greater reputational damage (press coverage etc.), and worsening internal and external relationships. The Leader damages their brand, through a loss of trust and authenticity.

This behaviour, puts the control in other’s hands (press, continued and growing complaints, union involvement etc. ) and sets the next bomb off. This burns time and effort firefighting. This means that there is no focus on strategically learning lessons setting the ground for things going from bad to worse. At that point, it becomes almost impossible to recover  and the leader is often forced to finally take ownership, often via a resignation. In the end,  ownership isn’t a choice, it’s just how and when. If you own the issue early, you have control, and if you don’t, it controls you.

We saw this at the end of Liz Truss’ brief premiership and the slow end of Boris Johnson’s. Truss’s sacrifice of Kwarteng did little to avoid her own ending. Johnson’s evasion of a continually unfolding story, precipitated an intervention by his own party. When a leader owns what’s happened it creates the possibility for a better outcome both for themselves and, most importantly, for the people involved.  In 2010, Toyota had safety issues that caused the death of 90 people and the recall of 8 million cars. The CEO, Akio Toyoda,  personally apologised and later created an Ad campaign citing their mistakes and what they were going to do to fix them. He is still in his role today and the share price of the company continues to grow.

Leaders often want to avoid showing weaknesses, yet conversely owning our vulnerabilities  requires courage and strength of character. To practice the skill of ownership, it’s precisely this element, mastering our own feelings about failing (and associated shame) that we need to practice.

  1. Be Truthful

 

This next step is to be truthful about what happened, why it happened, and the size of the issue. This is the other side of the coin to ‘owning it’. It’s tempting for leaders to tell a sanitised or spun version of the truth, to preserve their own image. However, this is a mistake, as the truth will always come out in the end. Again, it’s much better to be in control of this, even if it paints you in a bad light. If you don’t it will become impossible to retain any credibility as the leader who can navigate a better path forward. You will have lit the touch paper that explodes your reputation. And besides all of this, there is a moral duty to those affected by your decisions, or the decisions of those you lead. Remember, leadership is about doing the difficult right thing, rather than the easy wrong one.

  1. Make a heartfelt and meaningful apology

 

This is where you demonstrate ownership; apologies need to be timely and meant. When Liz Truss failed to apologise at her first press conference after her mini budget shook the market, a reporter shouted after her “aren’t you even going to apologise”. By not talking, instead of taking that moment to own what had happened, she detonated another bomb which increased both her party’s and the public’s lack of trust in her.

Apologising quickly diffuses a situation, and it’s best to do this early and clearly. Language always matters. It shows people what you really think and feel, and what you really mean.

Liz Truss did eventually apologise, yet her language was interesting: “I want to apologise”. “I want to” is tied to a future action and not owned in the present. Even if the people you are apologising to don’t notice the specifics of the words, they’ll subconsciously know it’s not fully owned and probably a performative apology, i.e., saying sorry is the quickest way to make this go away (which of course, it isn’t).

Apologies cannot be generalised: “I’m sorry we’ve let people down” without an explanation doesn’t work because it’s not targeted and doesn’t own what happened.

Apologies should not subtly shift blame on to the receiver: “I’m sorry if you are upset” or “we’re really sorry you’re not happy” (how British Gas responds to unresolved complaints). They must demonstrate ownership: “we’re sorry that we haven’t got it right yet” would be better.

And lastly avoid the opposite of a s**t sandwich: “We’re sorry we got this wrong and look over here at all the things we’re doing right”. This slight of mouth, doesn’t reassure people, it just makes them think you don’t mean it.

The best way to say sorry is clearly and simply, with a brief explanation of what happened. If it affects individuals then you must have the compassion to apologise directly and sincerely. Akio Toyoda visited and personally apologised to the 90 families affected.

4. Learn

The final and important act is to learn from what happened and demonstrate that you have learnt. We learn more from failure than we do from success. We learn about the systemic patterns that stressed the system, we learn about our colleagues and most importantly we learn about ourselves. An important aspect of failure is learning and sharing that learning. It will help reassure our customers or the people who use our services. It shows our followers that we mean business and importantly we demonstrate that both organisational and personal change is possible and even desirable.

I often wish that as well as sharing what the organisational has learnt, that leaders would also share what they have personally learnt, and how it has changed them as human beings. This would close the loop, and really show how they owned it. Leaders are human, mistakes happen, and personal ownership is the true art of avoiding bombs in the first place. This is the truest example of vulnerability as strength.

Lastly, if Liz Truss had put these steps into action, would she still be here? Possibly. When she did eventually say “We have made mistakes, I’m sorry for those mistakes but I’ve fixed the mistakes, I’ve appointed a new chancellor, we have restored economic stability and fiscal discipline and what I now want to do…”, the apology was both too late and not owned. I felt like she was using as a device to enable her to move on, rather than taking responsibility. It was a veritable, “I’ve ticked the box now, haven’t I? I’ve given you what you want”. What would it have been like if she had said:

“I’ve made mistakes and I’m sorry for those mistakes. I recognise that they have affected people personally and I apologise. My intention was to bring growth and I recognise that I didn’t bring people with me and that was the result. I’ve learnt that we need to take a more measured approach and I will be working with my Chancellor to do that. I will make sure that the future budget is scrutinised, and I will make sure that I listen and take on advice from a range of sources. I’m sorry and I have learnt”.

In the end, there is nothing better than an owned, heartfelt apology to take the explosion out of the situation.

[1] One of the best examples of how to manage a difficult situation was early in my career where I worked with an exemplary Management Team who listened to their staff. I had concerns about a newly inherited service based both on my interaction with them and the (lack) of data being returned. This, amongst other information sparked the organisation to initiate a review which led to the identification of a member of staff that had been grooming and abusing patients. The organisation was open both with the patients, public and press about what had happened (and in fact, initiated and took control of  what was reported)  and initiated action. It was a pivotal moment in my career that taught me that whilst it might feel difficult, doing the right thing is easier in the long run.

[2] Issues are problems that are unresolved and have become stuck. They happen because organisations don’t notice or pay attention to problem behaviours that are recurring in their organisations and creating the culture for bigger things to happen.

Leave a comment