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Amateurs fail after a misdeed

Anyone who avoids full responsibility after making a mistake counts as an amateur in my book. This past week, my students discussed the purpose and effectiveness of a letter from a publications manager to a group of volunteer editors. The consensus was that it effectively informed readers about the reasons for performance issues in the manager’s area, as well as plans to address them in the future,  but it was still an “epic fail.” (The letter appears as Application 2A in Thinking & Interacting Like a Leader, but you can view the entire text here: non-apology letter.)

Why an epic fail? Because the letter writer did not take full responsibility for the situation by apologizing to readers. There are two sentences near the end of the letter that might be construed as an apology.

Those who have been most affected by our delays have been extremely patient. I would like to express my thanks to you as we work to resolve our performance issues.

Those words do not, however, perform an unequivocal act of contrition. Several writers over at Macmillan Dictionary’s blog have talked about apologies over the past few months. Simon Williams and Jules Winchester note that contrition requires both an understanding of and sorrow for a misdeed. Theory supporting their view comes from speech act theory: two of the conditions our words must meet in order to constitute an apology are (a) expressing an act which resulted in harm to the audience and (b) sincere remorse for carrying out the act.  So — our letter writer appears to have an understanding of his area’s misdeed when saying some readers were “affected by our delays” and “performance issues.”  But praising readers or thanking them for their patience does not convey sorrow or remorse.

Michael Rundell’s blog post made the point that proper apologies require speakers to accept their role as agent of the misdeed. Again, speech act theory supports his view by including a condition that our words count as an apology only if we express a harmful act we carried out. Our letter writer implies his area’s agency for misdeeds by writing, “our delays” and “our performance issues.” Because the letter writer expressed no sorrow about the misdeeds, it’s not possible for him to accept agency.

Stan Carey wrote about issues with the following words as an apology:

[My] Apologies.

Stan rightly notes that the use of “Apologies” lacks some weight because of ellipsis — the reader has to fill in critical missing information. Once again, speech act theory supports this view by  describing the clearest apology as one with a first-person singular pronoun and the performative verb: “I apologize.” Several of the comments on Stan’s post lament the use of the following:

I’m sorry if . . . I hurt you . . . or . . . you were offended.

The problem noted by these folks is that the use of “if” makes this a pseudo- rather than actual apology. The conditional “if” is a presupposition trigger and does not presuppose the truth of the proposition expressed.  To be more clear, its use when expressing an act which resulted in harm to the audience weakens any attempted apology by implying the harm might not have taken place.

The bottom line for our letter writer is that he didn’t use any words related to “apology” or “sorry.” He expressed no sorrow about the harm done to his readers. So, despite the fact that he accepted some responsibility for that harm, he wrote a letter that failed as an apology. It would have been painful to convey his remorse after his area caused harm to the volunteer editors. It would have been humbling to communicate his full responsibility for that harm. But it would have made him a leader. And a pro.

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  1. While I don’t disagree with you in principle, I’m not sure if I can agree with you. How often do we see an actual public “apology” that even purports to take full responsibility for anything? Not very often at all. By your standards virtually the whole society would be run by amateurs (and I assume that by amateur you mean someone who doesn’t have a professional attitude). Either this is untrue or we are in very dire circumstances; I’m not sure what is worse.

    1. Others have told me I set the bar too high — so you’re not the first 😉 From my perspective, being a professional requires accepting full responsibility. The fact that few of us meet that mark doesn’t change the measure.

  2. I’m not sure I’m with you on this one. Apologies are about feelings, aren’t they, and in a business context it’s more important to me that an issue is taken seriously and steps are taken to counteract problems, than that someone does a ritual kotau over it.

    When a manager apologises for something they didn’t actually do, and probably had no control over either (most corporate decisions are made in committees) I often find it artificial, sometimes even a bit condescending. It sounds a bit like, “We understand, your poor little feelings were hurt, so now I’ll say whatever it takes to get you off our backs.”
    An “I hear you, I understand the issue, and I’ll do my best to sort it out” seems far more respectful to me. And more professional.

    I’m not sure why this is, possibly because in a business context I don’t really want remorse, I want action?

    I also work in a service-providing unit, and have spent a lot of time apologizing to customers. My heart has bled for them sometimes knowing what kind of rubbish we’ve provided them with; they know that, and our personal relationship is certainly the better for it. Yet when I’m apologising for my own mistakes, with a clear plan of how to repair them, it’s never a big deal. When I’m apologising for someone else’s mistakes and my regret is no less sincere (because I see us as delivering as a group), and can only say I’ll do my best to try and get someone to fix this, it’s a different story. They’re still (usually) very nice to me, but I can feel their total dissatisfaction.

    1. I hear you. I also want action. And I don’t want a lengthy emotional response. But I do want a brief one signaling remorse. In the non-apology letter, all it would have taken was four additional words in the first sentence: “I am writing to you to APOLOGIZE FOR THE DELAYS and give you an update on the status of our journal schedules for this year’s issues.” I’m curious to know if you would perceive that as condescending.

      One of the challenges of being a manager is taking responsibility for other people’s actions. Technically, apologies must come from the individual agent who caused harm. But, because of our role as a representative of our organization, we all sometimes find ourselves offering an apology for harm done by others within our organization. And sometimes it’s impossible to identify the guilty party. While our apology may not be fully satisfying, it seems better than nothing. Of course, the manager has to be sincere. One of the things I tell my students is that it’s a HUGE mistake to assume people can’t tell the difference. Humans are pretty savvy about such things!

  3. No, I wouldn’t perceive that phrase as condescending, but nor do I perceive it as being indicative of regret. I would see it more a matter of form. Perhaps it’s more the terms you use: contrition, remorse, sorrow etc. that I would find inappropriate in a business setting, or at least in this kind of situation.

    I agree about the sincerity. Insincere apologies tend to make things worse, a way of adding insult to injury.

    1. We agree completely on the inappropriate use words like “remorse,” “sorrow,” etc. in a business setting. I wasn’t suggesting those as the appropriate word choices — rather the appropriate attitudes conveyed by word choices. To me, “I am writing to apologize for the delays” conveys an attitude of contrition. Even if it’s formal or conventional.

      I should also have noted that one of my peeves with the non-apology letter is the amount of real estate occupied by explanation of mistakes (i.e., excuses make up the bulk of the letter) relative to the amount devoted to an apology.

      1. Then we disagree on words: I consulted the OED: contrition – the state of feeling remorseful and penitent. Related words are deeply remorseful, sin, penitence. This is not an attitude I approve of in the business world – other than in context of real crimes committed there. Same goes for sorrow, remorse, or misdeed. Doing something badly or inefficiently is not a misdeed.

        In general I don’t want anyone to feel bad about things in the business world, they shouldn’t be personal. That’s one of the things I feel are part of a professional attitude.

        This may seem to contradict what I said about my customers earlier, but what they respond to is that they realise I truly want to help them.

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