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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Apologizers

Want to see a real life case study in how to apologize (and how not to)? Check out Elliott Spitzer and Anthony Weiner.
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"Look, I failed. Big time. I hurt a lot of people."

That's Elliot Spitzer talking in his new television commercial, but do you buy the pitch?

Five years ago, Spitzer resigned in disgrace after it was revealed he'd spent as much as $80,000 on high-priced prostitutes while serving both as governor and attorney general. Now he's back and polls show him in a tight race for comptroller, the elected chief financial officer and auditor of the nation's largest city.

New York City politics right now are truly stranger than fiction. But if you can bear to watch the races long enough, you'll find some interesting lessons for leaders including how to say you're sorry when you screw up--and have a shot at bouncing back.

So, the Politician Who Cheated on His Wife With Prostitutes is a Good Example?

Contrast Spitzer with--insert groan here--New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner. Similar story, as far as it goes: New York politician resigns after a sex scandal and tries to make a comeback. But the comparison ends there. Spitzer has at least acknowledged and expressed some remorse for his behavior (which as far as we know, ended five years ago). Moreover, he's running for an office that voters barely paid attention to until recently. It's a step down, politically, a first rung on his potential comeback ladder.

Weiner, on the other hand, is dodging more questions about his scandal-plagued past-- including whether he's still doing the things he got in trouble for. He resigned from Congress only two years ago, yet he's running for a position that would represent a giant promotion. It's what would happen if the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez refused to accept a suspension for alleged steroid use and then announced a plan to retire and become the commissioner of baseball.

When You Apologize, Try to Seem Like You Mean It

Recently, consultant Josh Patrick wrote about the worst two weeks he'd ever experienced in business--and how apologizing and taking responsibility saved his company.

The story takes place back in 1990, when the food service company he ran in Vermont found itself at the center of a salmonella outbreak. Patrick's first call was to his insurance carrier, but he said his next instinct was to contact every single one of his clients. He said he explained what happened, admitted the whole thing was his company's fault, promised to take care of anyone who got sick, and asked for help identifying anyone else who might be affected:

We did not try to duck our problem. We did not try to blame anyone else or justify our behavior. ... We took responsibility for what happened. We communicated clearly about what the issues were. We asked for help in identifying those who might have become sick. We got our insurance company on board.

The combination of all of the things we did helped us stay in business. We did not lose a single client.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective Apologizers

Patrick said he learned seven lessons of crisis-management from his experience. I've tweaked them a bit because I think it makes sense to expand their applicability. Whether you're apologizing to friends, family, clients, voters, or anyone, keep these seven keys in mind:

1. Tell the truth. The coverup is usually worse than the crime.

2. Take responsibility.

3. Be the bearer of bad news. Don't let clients and other stakeholders learn about your failings from someone else.

4. Understand that you have to earn everyone's trust again.

5. Plan ahead. Patrick says his best crisis control step was one he'd taken months before, when his management team held a strategic planning meeting to talk about worst case scenarios.

6. Learn from your mistakes--and demonstrate how you've learned.

7. Be transparent. Stakeholders usually understand that you'll be reacting on the fly to the kinds of things you have to apologize for. It's like math class in middle school--you don't get credit unless you show your work.

Here's a comical look at how not to apologize, starring Abby Elliott from SNL.

Like this post? Here's the best way to keep up with Bill Murphy Jr. 

Last updated: Aug 1, 2013

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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