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 is Good for Everyone Says Psychotherpist.

Dr. Michael J. Hurd, a “psychotherapist, life coach and author” has published some thoughts on the psychological benefits of apologies for both the apologizer and the apologizee. He makes some interesting points, linking apology to a sense of justice:

Children, like adults, need to operate on a sense of justice. “Justice”
means sticking to, and honoring, the facts. “Was I wrong in what I said
or did? Do the facts prove I’m wrong? If so, I should acknowledge it.”
An apology is a form of acknowledgment. In essence, when you
apologize, you’re saying: “I know what I did was wrong, and I regret

The goal isn’t to be–or not be–sorry. The goal is to acknowledge the truth and apologize only for what you see as your error. (“Treat yourself to an apology”

He makes other good points, some noted before at Apology Index, about the importance of sincerity, the need to back the words of an apology with action, and the fact that the a true apology benefits the apologizer most of all. Also, an apology “doesn’t necessarily have to aim for (or result in) forgiveness.”

Worth a read by any student of apology. Check it out.

The Flip Side of Apology

Of interest, a couple of recent apology-related articles from the L.A. Times that deal with the other side of apologies–forgiveness.

First, we have “You’re not sorry? That’s OK.” The gist of it is, forgiveness is good for you:

A growing corps of researchers thinks they have it. Forgiveness — a
virtue embraced by almost every religious tradition as a balm for the
soul — may be medicine for the body, they suggest. In less than a
decade, those preaching and studying forgiveness have amassed an
impressive slate of findings on its possible health benefits.

They have shown that “forgiveness interventions” — often just a couple
of short sessions in which the wounded are guided toward positive
feelings for an offender — can improve cardiovascular function,
diminish chronic pain, relieve depression and boost quality of life
among the very ill.

Though, of course, it is not quite that simple if you read the whole article.

A companion article, Humans may be hard-wired to have a soft spot, discusses research into a possible evolutionary basis for the capacity and desire to forgive:

Forgiveness of others long predates organized religion as a desirable practice.

Michael McCullough, a psychologist at University of Miami and author of
a forthcoming book on the subject, surmises that higher primates and
early humans who were more forgiving were more likely to maintain the
family and social relations that would help them fend off predators,
secure food and go on to reproduce, thereby passing a tendency to
forgive on to future generations

Both interesting reads.

Frankenstein Apology in New York Times

Ok, it doesn’t really involve Frankenstein, except by analogy.

In a brilliant bit of “literary sampling” on today’s New York Times Op-Ed page, author Henry Alford produces an apology mix tape composed entirely of sentences cut and pasted from actual apologies … with all references footnoted. It is a brilliant … did I already say that? … piece of found satire called “ Regrets Only

And don’t forget the footnotes.

Here is a taste to give you the idea, but if you are an apology afficianado, go read it all:

I WANT to make it clear that everything you’ve heard and read is true.(1)
I can also no longer deny to myself that there are issues I obviously
need to examine within my own soul, and I’ve asked for help.(2)
So if you’re so thin-skinned that you took offense to a slip of the
tongue that I had, then I offer my apology. I am, am sorry that you
were offended.(3)

1. Mayor Gavin Newsom of San Francisco re his affair with the wife of his former campaign manager, 2007.

2. Isaiah Washington, a star of “Grey’s Anatomy,” re an anti-gay slur he hurled at is co-star T. R. Knight 2007.

3. Scott James, a Fox News Radio 600 KCOL host, re his on-air remarks equating homosexuals with child molesters, 2007.

Stop the Presses

I mentioned previously the “Stop the Presses” blog run by a firm called Levick Strategic Communications, who are in the business of … well, strategic communications. Which includes apology advice, when needed. I added the blog to my feed as a useful resource, because they tend to comment on high profile apologies. Have a look if you want a different take than mine for some incomprehensible reason.

Anyhow, a recent entry at Stop the Presses faults Michael Vick for apologizing too late … and soon-to-be former U.S. Senator Larry Craig for apologizing too soon:

On the ‘waited too long’ end of the spectrum we have pro football
player Michael Vick-nearly three months elapsed from the time that he
was accused of illegal dog fighting until the time he actually issued an apology.
And when he finally did apologize-virtually everyone saw it as too
little too late. While he can recover, it scores low on the courage and
integrity scale.

And on the ‘apologized too soon’ end of the spectrum we have Senator
Larry Craig, who was in such a hurry to issue his apology that he
apparently bypassed legal and crisis communications counsel, his chief
of staff, and good sense in general, and rather than just apologize, he
pled guilty. (‘A Tale of Two Apologies,’ Stop the Presses)

Of course, the moral of the story as they tell it is … hire a good strategic communications firm before you get in trouble. Wow! Didn’t see that coming!

Apologies Around the World: Japan

This story from Stars and Stripes caught my eye: “Suspect refused to pay $50,000 as apology to throat-slashing victim” I just can’t resist a good throat-slashing apology.

The quick summary:

While under
examination by his defense attorney, Masayuki Akamine, Daniels, 29, a
former Marine married to a sailor, said he at first offered $2,000 in
cash, a wristwatch and a letter of apology to his friend, Bryant White,
23, whose throat was slit in an altercation with Daniels and Marine
Sgt. Michael Avinger, 30.

According to Daniels, White eventually asked for $50,000 and Daniels refused to pay it.

said no,” Daniels said. “I could have paid him the money, but I didn’t
rob Mr. White or stab him. I’m sorry it happened to him. But I thought
it was ridiculous, you know, 50,000 in American dollars.”

In the U.S. legal system we might call offering an extrajudicial payoff to a crime victim bribery, witness tampering or somesuch. In Japan, it is apparently called “Jidan” and it’s part of their system:

Under the Japanese legal system, defendants in criminal cases traditionally offer jidan, or “I’m sorry” money, to the victims as a way of showing remorse.

in cases where a defendant pleads not guilty, an apology is offered to
show sympathy for the pain the victim has gone through. The sincerity
of the jidan carries a lot of weight in the sentencing process.

I am not personally familiar with the Japanese criminal justice system, so I don’t know if defendants are innocent until proven guilty or get pressed under heavy stones until they confess or what. I find it interesting that even if you plead not guilty, you are expected to offer the victim of the alleged crime some of that “I’m sorry” money. That seems bizarre to me … but, then, so does eating sea urchins, which the Japanese apparently find delicious. And don’t get me started on Pokemon.

But rather than blather on in complete ignorance, I found this scholarly-seeming paper on “The role of apology in the Japanese criminal justice system” by Professor Yoko Hosoi and Professor Haruo Nishimura. I will comment further when I get around to reading it.