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

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(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.)
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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.

GM Apology for Making Bad Cars — Part 2

As promised last time, we now take a closer look at GM’s recent “apology” for making bad cars. I put apology in quotes because a careful reader will note that although headline writers call it an apology, nowhere in the text (pdf here for your collection) does GM actually say they’re sorry. But they would like that $18 billion bailout please.

The always enterprising Michelle Malkin points out that GM has done this apology shtick before:

Like I said, I knew this apology strategy sounded familiar.

That’s because GM ran a “We’re sorry we suck so much” ad campaign five years ago in that sounded the same themes.

So this isn’t the first time GM has come crawling back with a mealy-mouthed apology for its corporate suckitude … that only confirms my loser boyfriend interpretation of this sorry spectacle!

Autoblog throws open the discussion. Commenters there are divided. Some blame GM for building big, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. Others blame American consumers for buying big, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs. Still others blame GM for making Americans want to buy big, gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs — further reinforcing the codependency theme.

Kendra Marr of the Washington Post, interviews Gene Grabowski, chair of the crisis and litigation practice at Levick Strategic Communications, and others, about GM’s approach. (We’ve heard from the Levick crowd before, commenting on corporate apologies.) He says apologizing isn’t easy for corporate America.

But GM does seem to have the non-apology apology down.

Patricia Sellers at Fortune, rolls the GM letter into a roundup of what she calls a positive recent trend of “leaders fessing up.” All of her examples–GM letter, Vikrim Pandit and Robert Rubin at Citigroup,  President Bush are of leaders admitting to making mistakes–or at least admitting that mistakes were made–but none seem to involve actual apologies. Ms. Sellers notes that admitting mistakes is not enough.

I think that is why the GM pseudo-apology falls flat. It coincides with begging for $18 billion or more from the taxpayers, it isn’t the first time the company has used this ploy, and their statement contains no real expression of remorse or clear and specific commitment to improve their ways. I mean “produce automobiles you want to buy and are excited to own”  is a bit vague. GM basically comes across as one of those pushy panhandlers you encounter in some cities … the ones who follow you down the block spinning their yarn about how they need a dollar for bus fare to the train station because their — apparently invisible — car broke down. Exact same thing, except GM wants to shake you down for $18 billion instead of the loose change in your pocket.

If they were really, truly sorry about the sorry way they’ve run their business, might General Motors have found it in themselves to come clean and really apologize and have a real plan to once again be the innovative global leaders American car companies used to be (and I think we all wish still were) before things got this bad?

In the end, I agree with Ms. Malkin and many others:

GM’s “road to redemption” five years ago turned out to be another dead end.

If you subsidize it, you’ll get more of it.

The “$15 billion” auto bailout installment is essentially a blank check for a carmaker that admits it has run a failing business for the last 25 years.

Let them fail. Let them go bankrupt. Let some with more enterprise, more foresight, more brains, and more guts acquire GM’s assets, pick up the pieces and rebuild the American auto industry. Sorry GM. It’s just not working out.

It is time to dump this chump!

GM Apology for Making Bad Cars

On Monday, General Motors took out a full page ad in Automotive News in which the company–currently begging Congress to give it American taxpayers’ money even though American consumers don’t want its cars–acknowledges having disappointed and betrayed American consumers.

Betrayed? That’s mighty strong language. Was GM secretly selling top secret plans for the good cars to Japan?

(Full disclosure: my car is a Chrysler.)

Let’s plow through the text of the allegedly apologetic ad

GM’S COMMITMENT TO THE AMERICAN PEOPLE

Oh, now you want a commitment, GM. Sure, you’ve been abusing us with your sub-par cars for years and now that you realize you’re about to get kicked to the curb — well, not the curb but the junkyard –suddenly you want to talk commitment. Well, we’re seeing Honda now. But whatever.

We deeply appreciate the Congress considering General Motors’ request to borrow up to $18 billion from the United States. We want to be sure the American people know why we need it, what we’ll do with it and how it will make GM viable for the long term.

As I think we here at Apology Index have noted before, these corporate apologies sound much more sincere when coming from an actual, identifiable person at the company — such as the CEO — rather than from the anonymous, impersonal, corporate royal we. That alone should set the red light blinking on your Insincereometer.

For a century, we have been serving your personal mobility needs,
providing American jobs and serving local communities. We have been the U.S. sales leader for 76 consecutive years. Of the 250 million cars and trucks on U.S. roads today, more than 66 million are GM brands – nearly 44 million more than Toyota brands. Our goal is to continue to fulfill your aspirations and exceed your expectations.

See what I mean? This is totally the abusive, loser boyfriend begging you to take him back:

We had some good times, didn’t we, baby? Remember the Corvair …  no, wait, I mean the Vega! No, not the Vega. How about  the backseat of that Chevette? Anyway, I sill have 50% more vehicles on the road than Toyota, if you know what I mean.

While we’re still the U.S. sales leader, 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.

Look, baby, I know I let you down. I know my quality control wasn’t always what it should have been. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention to your needs. You needed safe, reliable, affordable, fuel-efficient cars. I get that. I get that. . I know I betrayed you with all those pick-ups and I was very proliferate with a lot of different brands. Maybe I even gave you an SUV you didn’t want. But I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m sorry, baby. Things are going to be better now, you’ll see!

Today, we have substantially overcome our quality gap; our newest designs like the Chevrolet Malibu and Cadillac CTS are widely heralded for their appeal; our new products are nearly all cars and “crossovers” rather than pick-ups and SUVs; our factories have greatly improved productivity and our labor agreements are much more competitive. We are also driven to lead in fuel economy, with more hybrid models for sale and biofuel-capable vehicles on the road than any other manufacturer, and determined to reinvent the automobile with products like the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle and breakthrough technology like hydrogen fuel cells.

Check out my sweet new designs, baby. You know you want my Malibu, boo. I’m not doing the pick-ups and the SUVs no more. I have crossed over. I’ve gotten really interested in being green and saving the environment now, baby. I really care about  these things. I know that surprises you, but it’s the truth. This is the only planet we got, baby! We got to share it with the rainforest and the baby seals and all that. Yeah, I’ve reinvented myself, baby. And it’s all for you. Including by breakthrough extended range. It’s all electric. Can you feel the tingle?

Until recent events, we felt the actions we’d been taking positioned us for a bright future. Just a year ago, after we reached transformational agreements with our unions, industry analysts were forecasting a positive GM turnaround. We had adequate cash on hand to continue our restructuring even under relatively conservative industry sales volume assumptions.

But I’ve got to tell you, baby. These problems we’re having lately. I never saw it coming. I thought things were going fine.

Unfortunately, along with all Americans, we were hit by a “perfect storm.” Over the past year we have all faced volatile energy prices, the collapse of the U.S. housing market, failing financial institutions, a stock market crash and the complete freezing of credit. We are in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Just like you, we have been severely impacted by events outside our control. U.S. auto industry sales have fallen to their lowest per capita rate in half a century. Despite moving quickly to reduce our planned spending by over $20 billion, GM finds itself precariously and frighteningly close to running out of cash.

Anyway, I lost my job and I’m about to get kicked out of my apartment so I thought, you know, could I stay with you for a while?

This is why we need to borrow money from U.S. taxpayers. If we run
out of cash, we will be unable to pay our bills, sustain our operations
and invest in advanced technology. A collapse of GM and the domestic
auto industry will accelerate the downward spiral of an already anemic
U.S. economy. This will be devastating to all Americans, not just GM
stakeholders, because it would put millions of jobs at risk and deepen
our recession. By lending GM money, you will provide us with a
financial bridge until the U.S. economy and auto sales return to
modestly healthy levels. This will allow us to keep operating and
complete our restructuring.

And could you loan me a few billion bucks? I’ll pay you back. It’s just until things pick up, I promise!

Wait, I didn’t mean to say “pick-up.”

Baby, you can’t just leave me on the street. That would be devastating, to you and to me. I know you couldn’t sleep at night, thinking about me all hungry and cold and lonely out there. Loan me the money and you’ll feel much better, I promise.

We submitted a plan to Congress Dec. 2, 2008, detailing our commitments to ensure our viability, strengthen our competitiveness, and deliver energy-efficient products. Specifically, we are committed to:

• produce automobiles you want to buy and are excited to own
• lead the reinvention of the automobile based on promising new technology
• focus on our core brands to consistently deliver on their promises
• streamline our dealer network to ensure the best sales and service
• ensure sacrifices are shared by all GM stakeholders
• meet appropriate standards for executive pay and corporate governance
• work with our unions to quickly realize competitive wages and benefits
• reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil
• protect our environment
• pay you back the entire loan with appropriate oversight and returns

See, baby, I wrote it all down for you in a poem. Because this is how I really feel.

These actions, combined with a modest rebound of the U.S. economy, should allow us to begin repaying you in 2011.

Honest, I’ll pay you back! Starting three years from now. Maybe.

In summary, our plan is designed to provide a secure return on your investment in GM’s future. We accept the conditions of your loan, the commitments of our plan, and the results needed to transform our business for long-term success. We will contribute to strengthening U.S. energy and environmental security. We will contribute to America’s technical and manufacturing know-how and create high quality jobs for the “new economy.” And, we will continue to deliver personal mobility freedom to Americans using the most advanced transportation solutions. 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.

Come on, baby, don’t be that way! We were meant to be together, just you and me. Forget those foreign guys, with their smooth styling, plush comfort, high gas mileage and maintenance-free reliability. We’ve been together for a long, long time. We’ve got history. You and GM, we were meant to be. Are you just going to let that end? Do you want me to go bankrupt? Is that it? Is that it? Is that what you want? Will that make you happy! I bet it would! You skanky little two-timing, import model chasing, good for nothing —

No, wait, baby! I’m sorry I lost my temper! I didn’t mean it! Please open the door. Please don’t leave me standing out here in the rain knocking on the door. No, don’t call the cops, baby! Look, just slip the money under the door and I’ll leave, okay?

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Well, that’s my take. This isn’t so much an apology from GM as it is a ploy to emotionally manipulate America into bailing out the auto industry. One way you can tell it is not an apology: the complete absence of the words “apology” “apologize” “sorry” or even “regret” in the actual text of the GM letter. It is a psuedo-apology. They want us to think they’re sorry just long enough to sign the check.

Next time, we’ll see what others may  think.