In Business
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t’s often said in business, but rarely written in so many words: “Shit happens.” Sometimes, the shit that happens is our responsibility, and it lands on others.  Sometimes, hell, it hits the fan, and lands on a great many people. At these times, there’s damage to repair. So, humans have invented the apology. Properly deployed, the apology is an incredibly powerful tool of reconciliation and relationship repair.

Sadly however, apologies are rarely properly deployed.  When botched, they’re weak tools of repair at best. At worst, they’re powerful tools for relationship destruction and prohibiting reconciliation.

And now, surely, he’ll apologize to his customers, to women everywhere, and to anyone else he may have offended for blaming the sheerness of his clothing on too big thighs instead of cost-cutting.

Take for example the not-so-funny comedy-of-errors created by Chip Wilson, CEO of yoga apparel manufacturer LuluLemon Athletica. People loved them. Their yoga pants sold and sold and sold. Then, they changed their fabric source, and people complained that their pants were too sheer, revealing more than they wished to reveal when they bent over — which people often do in yoga class. When CEO Chip Wilson could have said, “Sorry. My bad. We shouldn’t have gone with the cheaper fabric. Free, better replacements on me.” Instead, he essentially blamed customers whose thighs were too big. And he did it on national television, saying, “It’s, you know, really about the rubbing through the thighs… how much pressure is there.” Bad form, Chip, blaming the people who made you rich for the decline in quality and opacity.

Well, all is not lost. That’s why we invented apologies, for people like Chip (and the rest of us — to err is human). “I can fix this, he said. “I’ll post a video online,” he said. Good idea. He can reach thousands, millions of people to make amends for the offense he gave.

So he did make a video and post it online.  He said, ““I’m sad for the people at LuluLemon who I care so much about, that have really had to face the brunt of my actions.” Good. He’s aware that his actions affect his employees. That’s good. He continued, “I take responsibility for all that has occurred.” Good.  He owns it. Going on, “and the impact it has had on you. I’m sorry to have put you all through this.” Ok.  And now, surely, he’ll apologize to his customers, to women everywhere, and to anyone else he may have offended for blaming the sheerness of his clothing on too big thighs instead of cost-cutting.

But, no. He stops there. Not even a single word to customers. Why’d you post that online, Chip?  Oh, I see. You posted that online in order to add insult to injury.

Stock prices plummeted. Chip resigned. LuluLemon’s rep still hasn’t recovered.

So, that’s one way to really screw it up — fail to ever actually apologize to those who are waiting for your apology — but, how do you do it right?

It’s not a magic trick, and there’s no sleight of hand. If you determine that you’re responsible for something that’s caused someone else displeasure…

(Side note: I’ve said it twice now.  Responsible. Notice I didn’t say, “culpable.” You don’t have to be at fault. If you promise to give a presentation in Anchorage on Tuesday, that’s your responsibility.  If all flights in and out of Anchorage have been cancelled due to a storm for a week, that’s an act of god, and not your fault. Guess what… An apology is still warranted.)

If you’re responsible for something that’s caused someone else displeasure… Here are 7 ingredients you can mix together to make an effective apology soup.  You don’t need every one, every time, but when in doubt, don’t skimp.

  • Simply name the offending action or event.  “We at LuluLemon compromised the quality of our clothing by going with a less expensive fabric supplier.” Or, if you don’t catch it that early, “I blamed my customers on national television for the sheerness that was actually caused by an inferior material.” Or, if you were meant to be the keynote speaker in Anchorage, “I didn’t show up for your event.”
  • Express empathy. Demonstrate that you know that your actions had an impact, and that you have enough insight into others that you can imagine what that impact may have been. “You, our customers, came to rely on the quality of our apparel, and have been disappointed, and by showing a bit more tush than you intended, perhaps embarrassed.” Or, if you didn’t catch it that early, “You may have been shocked and disappointed, perhaps offended by my misplaced blame and fat-shaming.” Or, if you didn’t make it to AK, “You were left to twiddle your thumbs without your keynote speaker. I imagine that was disappointing and likely boring.”
  • Express regret or apology. You don’t have to grovel. Just note that different would have been better. “I’m sorry.” Or, “I wish we hadn’t changed suppliers.” Or, “We’d all be better off if we had stuck with a fabric that was working.” Or, “I never should have said those things.” Or, if you were due in the frozen north, “I wish I could have been there.”
  • Explain (without defense – sans defensiveness – no defending) why it happened. Use “I” language. This is not to be an excuse. Demonstrate that you have the insight that would make this apology meaningful.  This begins to give them assurance that you know enough to be able to prevent its happening again. By the way, keep it brief. This is meant to be a proof of concept, not a treatise. “I was really feeling the pressure, and I didn’t want to damage our (or my) image by admitting we’d compromised quality.” Or, “We put profits ahead of quality.” Or, if you flub the first one, “I really have a problem with prejudice against people who are overweight.” Or, “I lash out like a rabid dog when I feel cornered.”  Notice the “I” language. You didn’t see, “Your thighs are too big.” There was no, “The devil made me do it.” If all the flights were canceled for a week, “I couldn’t get a flight. All the flights were cancelled for a week.”
  • Offer a remedy. Very often, most of the time, you can’t completely heal the rift. But you can make a gesture that demonstrates that you are sincere. You may or may not be able to make the other party whole, but you can put your money (literal or figurative) where your mouth is. “If you bought pants that showed ass-pects you intended to keep hidden, while I can’t restore your dignity, your next pair of yoga pants — original opaque formula — is on me.” (Maybe you leave out the part about dignity, or maybe you keep it as a part of your naming the impact. Probably, you’d leave out the ass pun.) Or, if you’ve already put your foot in your mouth, “I’m going to sensitivity training next week.” Or, “I’m going to put myself in stockades in Time Square at noon on Tuesday. Please don’t throw hard vegetables.” Or, if you were kept from the cold, “Is there an opportunity for us to reschedule?”
  • Make a credible commitment for the future, and live up to it. “Credible” is important here. We’ve got to be able to believe you. Don’t promise the moon. “I promise never to utter another offensive word so long as I live,” is not credible. Try, “I’m going to call our old distributor and get the high-quality fabric back.” Or, if you’ve already offended half of America, “I’m going to strive to think before I speak, and care for our customers — body, mind, and soul. Namaste.” And, “I’m going to start doing yoga so I’m not so volatile under stress.” Or, if you couldn’t fly north, “I’m going to prohibit snow-storms for a week surrounding and future engagements.” Hopefully, you were paying attention, and caught that one. That’s not credible. And in a case where it’s not your actions that caused the breach, this ingredient isn’t needed.
  • Listen. Really listen. You may have given a credible and beautifully crafted apology, but don’t think that ends it. An apology cannot completely close the rift. Trust must be regained. The greater the rift, the greater the need for rebuilding. Emotional pressure has built up under the strain. Your apology opens the door to release the pressure. Now listen as the pressure escapes. You may get an earful. If you are still, non-reactive, peaceful, and receptive during the entirety of the eruption, you may find that when the other party is through venting, they will stop. Then there is peace. Then there is nothing more to say. All you need do is honor your commitments to repair the relationship.

Not every rift requires all of these ingredients. Often, you can get by with only a few. But the more complete the recipe, the more powerful the apology.  Don’t bring a knife to a gun apology.

Apologies can:

  • Build trust
  • Repair relationships
  • Accelerate the pace of business
  • Demonstrate strength of character

An apology is not:

  • A sign of weakness
  • A miracle cure
  • A time to make demands

So, I’ll leave you with this. An apology is an offering. It’s an offering of reconciliation to another, and of strength and integrity to yourself. It is not a time or opportunity to make demands. Even, “Please forgive me,” is a demand. “I hope you can forgive me,” is better.

Try one today. Make a call. Write a letter. Tell me how it goes.

 

(ABC covered Chip Wilson’s failed apology – watch here)

Aaron Schmookler
Aaron Schmookler is Co-Founder and Trainer at The Yes Works, dedicated to helping companies create and maintain a culture of communication, collaboration, and innovation through improv training dynamically correlated to the real work of real teams. Improv: The competitive advantage you’ve been looking for.
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