I’ll start with an apology, I’m not here I am there. I will be just arriving in Canada for my keynote at the BCCDA conference in Vancouver and other workshops. Probably tweet from there… any some views on apologies in your career from someone whose has an apology of a career!!!
Sorry it seems is not always the hardest word, especially when it is strategic for your career. The apology is the latest weapon in the hands of the upwardly mobile who prefer the older definition of apology as a defence or self-justification rather than the more recent meaning of apology as a sincere expression of regret for hurt caused to another.
You do not have to go back further than the recent state election to see the effectiveness of the apologetic “more to do but we are heading in the right direction”. This is a classic example of the non-apology apology and is typical of the type of mealy-mouthed utterances delivered by those with an eye on the main chance and little regard for awkward truths or uncomfortable insights let alone the unpleasant consequences.
There are a range of strategic or cynical apologies open to the unapologetic. Firstly there is the defensive apology. This takes the form of: “ I am sorry but I didn’t realise that you were so sensitive about your looks”. The normal structure is to spit out the “sorry” on a rising tide of volume, followed quickly by a sniping criticism that serves as self-justification. In other words, it is your fault you are upset.
The distracting apology is an all together more devious and powerful device in the right hands. For instance the car dealer who gets in first with “I am really sorry that I lied through my teeth about the delivery date, it is out of our hands, however if you like we could get you one from inter-state, but you would be up for a delivery fee. We do have one you can have straight away but you will have to cop an extra grand because it has the optional rust-proofing on the vanity mirror”. So befuddled are you, you end up paying the extra. In other words, you can wait, but the wait will be your fault.
The aggressive apology is usually a list of apologies: I am sorry that the report you dumped on me last night is late and I am sorry that I couldn’t get the ancient printer to work that you wont replace and I am sorry that I was late getting here this morning because I had to go across town to collect the parcel you left behind and I am sorry that I exist. In other words it is your fault.
A perfect apology to antagonize another is the too late apology: I am sorry that I did not invite you to dinner with Robert De Niro, but you said you weren’t coming into the office on Wednesday and by the time De Niro suggested it, I reckoned you had probably already eaten. In other words it is your fault.
The neutraliser is a great way of controlling a situation: I am sorry. Look I’ve said I’m sorry, so lets move on. Implication: it is your fault that you continue to have a problem with my behaviour.
Then there is the let me tell you why you are wrong apology: I am sorry that we have given you food poisoning, but you should never have ordered the burger to be cooked that way.
Occasionally the apologiser pins the cause on someone other than yourself, but of course it is never pinned on them. For instance, I am sorry, you should never trust what they say in the sales department what they are suggesting is illegal. They are always doing that. You will need to go back to them and start all over again. Sorry it is not my department. Implication: a) you are an idiot, and b) you are surrounded by idiots.
What is often so lacking is the immediate, heartfelt mea culpa. For this to be genuine and genuinely effective, it requires the following elements: a no excuses and no hiding places expression of remorse; a genuine seeking of forgiveness for past transgressions; the promise that this will never happen again; the unprompted plan of action to ensure it wont happen again; the spontaneous offer of some form of thoughtful recompense; and finally a spontaneous self-imposed genuine punishment appropriate to the misdemeanour..
Funnily enough the last approach is likely to be the most effective in career development terms in the longer term because it builds trust and faith. There are plenty of examples of celebrities that taken this course of action without there being any long term damage to their careers (think Hugh Grant and Divine Brown for instance or Bill Clinton). The trouble is for political parties, the cynic in me wonders whether such a course of action would be political suicide.
Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU National and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.