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Public Apologies: A User’s Guide

Mastering the mea culpa is a critical skill for leaders in the political and corporate worlds alike. A strong apology—more than just offer an admission of wrongdoing or a mistake—can underscore a leader’s philosophy, their vision, and restore confidence in their abilities. On the other hand, poorly-executed apologies have a tendency to become notorious and potentially career-ending gaffes. Since the art of the apology is far from an exact science, how can leaders ensure that their messages of contrition will be effective?

According to a trio of researchers, the secret of a successful apology lies in its format. In the article “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies,” Roy J. Lewicki, Beth Polin, and Robert B. Lount Jr. outline the components necessary for an apology to be considered sincere. They also noted that the more elements an apology contained—up to six—the more effective it would be. So, if you ever need to issue a public apology, be sure to consult this list beforehand!

Acknowledgement of Responsibility

This is the most important element of a strong apology according to the researchers. It might be tempting to evade blame (“mistakes were made”) or shift the fault onto some third-party, but for your apology to succeed and win respect, you must admit your own wrongdoing. It’s difficult and certainly no fun, but an apology that shows you recognize your responsibility indicates to people that you can be trusted.

Offer of Repair

The public wants to know what you’re going to do to fix the problem or prevent it from happening again. Sharing the steps you’ll follow or put into place to correct your mistakes will help improve your apology.

Expression of Regret

Ironically, the researchers found that the expression of regret—the actual “I’m sorry”—was only the third-most important component of an apology. Even so, an apology that forgets this element is no true apology! Be sure to express your remorse over the situation when you step in front of the cameras or craft your statement.

Explanation of What Went Wrong

Essentially, this point asks you to address whether or not the root of the apology was a mistake or a deliberate act. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in excuses, but plainly explain what happened to merit an apology in the first place. Ideally, this statement should be clear, relatable, and empathetic.

Declaration of Repentance

Much like the offer of repair, this stage of the apology is an opportunity to promise growth and that the mistake won’t happen again.

Request for Forgiveness

Ask the aggrieved party to accept your apology. This is very dependent on context: Do you need to emotionally rebuild a relationship or are you simply smoothing over a small error? The answer to those questions will influence how you approach this request.

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