GM Apology for Making Bad Cars — Part 3: Special Comment from Special Guest John Kador

(General Motors week continues here at Apology Index
  (not as gory as Shark Week, but in some ways much more scary!). You’ve read my take on the GM non-apology and a roundup of analysis from others, such as the ever-delectable Michelle Malkin. Today we have a holiday treat for you — AI’s first ever Special Guest blogger!

In our coverage of public apologies, AI has returned to certain themes again and again:

  • What are the elements of a sincere and effective apology?
  • Why do some apologies leave a bad taste in our mouths?
  • What are the special considerations for corporate apologies as opposed to apologies by individuals?

While AI haphazardly hits these points from time to time, other students of apology take a serious and systematic look at apologies, the ethics thereof, and how to apologize effectively in personal and business situations. Bestselling author John Kador has done just that, both in his forthcoming book Effective Apology and in articles and commentaries online.

Despite his own expertise–and in a curious lapse of good judgment–John reads Apology Index. He had some thoughts on GM’s “apology” this week that he wanted to share with AI readers, so I’ve invited John to take the AI wheel today with this Special Guest commentary.)
GM: Contrition is Good, But Where’s the Apology?

By John Kador

General Motors, the world’s largest automaker, is taking baby steps on the road to apology.    GM has been widely applauded for “apologizing” for its mistakes in a full-page advertisement in Automotive News.  But while the company admits mistakes, concedes it has disappointed consumers, and promises to do better, there is no real apology there.  Not yet.  In due course, GM will issue a genuine apology, but this is not it.  Not even close.  And when it does we will know it, because while it is hard to define effective apology, we know it when we see it.  

A genuine apology meets five requirements.  I call these the Five Rs:  Recognition, Responsibility, Regret, Restitution, and Repetition.  The GM statement meets only two of them.

An apology is effective when it specifies what the offender is apologizing for, accepts responsibility for the outcome, expresses regret by using the words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize,” offers appropriate restitution, and promises not to repeat the offensive behavior.  The GM statement recognizes some of the mistakes the company made.  It also suggests that it has learned from its mistakes and will not repeat them.  But the statement falls short of effective apology by failing to explicitly accept responsibility for its predicament.  Indeed, later in its statement it blames a “perfect storm” of economic conditions.  There may be truth in this, but it’s more of an explanation than an apology.

But as an apology, the GM statement misses the boat by failing to address the two hardest pieces of effective apology:  regret and restitution.

No Regret, No Restitution

Expressing regret or remorse is the central part of any apology.  It is here that the apologizer offers the magic words “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.”   Any other language pales in power.  For many people, especially leaders and people in authority, these are the two hardest words to utter.  For too long, leaders have assumed that apologizing is a sign of weakness and that followers will be rattled by evidence that leaders can make mistakes.  But those attitudes are being replaced by evidence that, to the contrary, the willingness to apologize is taken as an indication of confidence.  Followers know that no one is perfect.  What they want are leaders who can admit and learn from their mistakes.  What they want from their leaders is accountability and transparency.

Restitution is the other stumbling block where many apologizers pull back and thereby limit the effectiveness of their apology.  Restitution is the practical attempt by the offender to restore the relationship to what it was before, to disgorge property or privilege that he or she unfairly gained, and to demonstrate a measure of humility.  Restitution requires more than words.  You cannot talk your way out of a situation you acted yourself into.  Restitution is often painful, but in the long run it’s less painful than staying on the road of denial and defensiveness.  

GM has taken small steps on the road to apology, and for this the company deserves commendation.  But if a genuine apology is what it wants, GM still has a way to go.  This is part of what GM said in its ad titled “GM’s Commitment to the American People”:

 . . .  we acknowledge we have disappointed you. At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster. We have proliferated our brands and dealer network to the point where we lost adequate focus on our core U.S. market. We also biased our product mix toward pick-up trucks and SUVs. And, we made commitments to compensation plans that have proven to be unsustainable in today’s globally competitive industry. We have paid dearly for these decisions, learned from them and are working hard to correct them by restructuring our U.S. business to be viable for the long term.

Nothing is more certain than GM will eventually issue a more complete apology.  When it does, the apology will come from CEO Rick Wagoner, who as the leader of GM, will accept personal responsibility.  It will be Wagoner’s final gesture of leadership at GM.  The apology may well sound something like this.  The first paragraph is pretty much the same:

On behalf of the entire General Motors team, I acknowledge we have disappointed you.  We violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster. We have proliferated our brands and dealer network to the point where we lost adequate focus on our core U.S. market. We also biased our product mix toward pick-up trucks and SUVs. And, we made commitments to compensation plans that have proven to be unsustainable in today’s globally competitive industry.

These failures will now require substantial sacrifice from the entire GM family.  As chairman and CEO of General Motors, I accept responsibility for these failures.  To the employees, retirees, dealers, consumers, and the American taxpayer who is now being called on to sacrifice for us, I say I apologize.  I’m sorry for my arrogance and failure of leadership.  I have always insisted that GM executives take responsibility for their failures.  I can ask no less of myself.  For this reason, I have informed the board of directors that I am resigning from my positions as chairman and CEO of General Motors.  I believe GM will learn enduring lessons from its mistakes and will be better positioned not to repeat them.  We are proud of our century of contribution to U.S. prosperity and look forward to making an equally meaningful contribution during our next 100 years.

Perceptions of Apology Have Shifted

The recent experience of GM, as well as Ford and Chrysler, validates the shifting perceptions of contrition and apology.  When the CEOs of the Detroit Three first went before Congress to plead for a bailout, they were roundly criticized for flying to DC in three separate private jets.  The CEOs were tone-deaf to the requirements for contrition and humility.  They walked away empty-handed.  But they quickly learned that strength flows not from defending themselves, shifting responsibility to the economy, or combativeness but from demonstrating contrition, admitting mistakes, and humbling themselves.  They walked (or jetted) away with nothing but scathing criticism.  For their next appearance before Congress, the CEOs drove hybrid cars and were willing to admit mistakes and accept salary reductions.   They drove back to Detroit with a promise of help, albeit at a level half of what they requested.

I believe that if they had apologized in terms I outlined above, the Big Three would be in a much stronger position to get the resources they need.  The take-away from all of this is, that morality aside, apology is effective.  It’s not only the virtuous thing for an organization to apologize when it makes mistakes, but it’s often the most direct avenue to getting what it wants. This is true for individuals as well as organizations.

APOLOGY RESEARCH: Law enforcement apologies

Something a little different today, recalling the recent apology by the police chief of lovely McKinney, Texas for arresting the wrong woman on drug charges.

The Police Chief ran a 2006 article entitled, “Should Law Enforcement Agencies Apologize for Mistakes?”

The common sense answer would seem to be, “Yes, of course.”

But when the lawyers get involved, it is usually a different story:

Lawyers, on the other hand, typically tell clients to admit nothing and
never apologize.

An approach which pretty much guarantees that if the wronged party is undecided about filing a lawsuit, they’ll go ahead and sue. Which is good for no one.

Except, of course, the lawyers.

However, sometimes it pays to ignore your lawyer:

An apology for wrongdoing can reduce the potential for litigation and
liability and also help maintain or restore public trust. Refusing to
admit wrongdoing may cause greater problems than the wrongdoing itself.
Most agree that public officials would be better off if they simply
admitted their transgressions, apologized, and sought forgiveness. In
recognition of these principles, some law enforcement agencies have
developed standard operating procedures for use of apology and
expressions of regret as risk management tools.

The apology as “risk management tool” still sounds a little cold-blooded, but the basic point is sound. Often when people are harmed by your actions they just want an acknowledgment from you that you messed up, that you realize you were wrong and that you won’t do it again. Yes, we live in an overly litigious society. There is always a Crazy Pants Guy out there. (He lost, by the way). But most people, I believe, are willing, even eager to forgive if you acknowledge their pain and give them a chance.

If you give them that respect, their anger may away and with it the desire for revenge and retaliation. No sane person wants to be involved in a lawsuit if they can avoid it. So, yes, it makes intuitive sense to me that a police apology can forestall a potential lawsuit … which is, in fact, good risk management. As well as being the right thing to do.

The article cites anecdotal evidence, as well as research to support what common sense tells us, but  lawyers won’t.

One interesting tidbit from the article that we will follow up on in a future post is this:

In 2000 California passed a law barring the introduction of apology-like
expressions of sympathy (“I’m sorry that you were hurt”) but not
fault-admitting apologies (“I’m sorry that I hurt you”) after accidents
as evidence of fault. Other states are now debating proposed apology
legislation, including bills that would exclude from evidence even
fault- admitting apologies.

This is a positive development. Often organizations and individuals want to do the right thing and apologize but don’t precisely because they fear the apology being used against them in court. No good deed goes unpunished.

It presents a Catch-22 situation. Your apology may prevent a lawsuit. But if it doesn’t, your apology may be used as evidence against you. In that situation, it may be safer not to apologize.

(Not to be too harsh on the lawyers, they are trained to be cautious and to think about the worst-case scenario, hence the typical advice to clam up).

A law that prevents apologies from being introduced as evidence meets a real human need. It creates room in tense situations for doing the right thing. Aside from that, it may serve the public good by reducing the number of lawsuits. Because in some cases, an apology is all the harmed person really wants.

Hopefully, the number of police departments — and other organizations — willing to apologize when appropriate will continue to grow.

For one thing, that will mean less slow apology news days here at Apology Index.