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KNOW HOW

7 Steps to a Convincing Apology. (You're Welcome, Governor Christie)
 

A bad apology just makes a bad situation worse. Here's what a good one looks like.

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We all screw up. Hopefully not often, but we do.

Unfortunately, we're just as bad at apologizing as we are at trying to be perfect. Apologies from business leaders and politicians, in particular, are pretty much guaranteed to be lame.

When Snapchat got hacked, the company's first statement essentially said that, theoretically, the hack could be a problem.

When Target customers were unable to get through on the company's phone lines after a massive pre-holiday hack of credit-card information, the CEO released a statement containing the dreaded apology-with-excuse: "We apologize and want you to understand that we are experiencing unprecedented call volume."

And on Wednesday, when text messages and e-mails showed that two aides to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may have arranged for access lanes to the George Washington Bridge to be closed in an act of political retribution, the governor referred to it only as "unsanctioned conduct."

None of this is winning anyone any friends. When you or your employees mess up, you owe a real apology to the folks on the receiving end of your snafu. Especially if you want those customers, partners and investors to be just as happy working with you now as they were before the screw-up.

Here's what a real apology looks like, according to Nick Smith, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of New Hampshire who has studied apologies extensively and is the author of I was Wrong: The Meaning of Apologies.

It's prompt. You apologize after you realize you've done something wrong. Not after you've been raked over the coals in the press.

Agree on the facts. Snapchat's initial statement didn't even seem to admit that the company was hacked. In the second statement, the company 'apologized' for "any problems this issue may have caused you." That may sound like it covers the waterfront, but in fact, it's frustratingly vague. What problems, exactly? Yes, it may be humiliating, but you have to can't apologize for something without coming clean about the fact that it happened in the first place.

Take responsibility. In Christie's case, there's no evidence that he ordered the lane closures. The CEO of Target isn't implementing the company's securities measures himself. This is why we have the phrase, "The buck stops with me." You do not make excuses.

Explain what you did wrong. Say that it was wrong. This is what was so obviously missing from the first Snapchat statement.

Express regret. "I'm sorry," works fine. "I'm sorry that our site was hacked," does not. That's similar to "I'm sorry your dog died." Those are both expressions of sympathy, not apologies.

Make it better. This isn't always possible, of course. If there's something you can do to make it up to the person you've offended, do so.

Explain why it won't happen again. Is Governor Christie requiring his personal signature on all traffic-cone placements from here on out? Are Target or Snapchat putting new security measures in place? Tell us.

And most important: Don’t do it again. 

IMAGE: AP
Last updated: Jan 9, 2014

KIMBERLY WEISUL is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.
@weisul




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