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Commentary: I Apologize

By Merrie Spaeth, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

After JetBlue left passengers stranded because of snow and ice and trapped inside planes on the tarmac for as long as 11 hours, the company CEO has launched a campaign to win back customers. His first step was to apologize in interview after interview, with print and TV reporters and even on the David Letterman show. Letterman got a laugh saying, "Our next guest is the CEO of JetBlue. Let's keep him waiting." CEOs usually don't want to talk, even hypothetically, about whether it's appropriate to apologize and when.

Not that there's any lack of examples. Last month, the CEO of Toyota apologized publicly, verbally, not just via some written statement, for the 9.3 million recalls over the last few years. Former Computer Associates Sanjay Kumar, convicted of accounting fraud, told the judge, "I know I was wrong and there was no excuse for my conduct. I do apologize for my mistakes."

Apologies are important because they are a first step in accepting responsibility - even if you weren't immediately responsible. The JetBlue CEO said the company was underinvested in communications capabilities and resources and that, ultimately, was his fault.

We hear a lot of apologies which don't really ring true. It reminds us of the thief apologizing for getting caught rather than doing the deed. That was my take on many of the celebrity apologies last year such as former Seinfeld star, Michael Richards ("Kramer"), last fall. I felt the same way last winter when RadioShack's CEO was caught padding his resume. After denying it, he finally managed to say, "I feel terrible about it."

Experts think there's a gender difference; that women apologize more freely than men, and I agree with that somewhat. If being verbally accountable and stepping up to the plate to say, "I did that" is the underpinning of an apology, the men I know and work with are just as comfortable saying, "I'm sorry."

Not so long ago, an apology was a sign of weakness. In some circumstances, such as litigation over medical malpractice, lawyers were adamant: never apologize. It indicates guilt. The latest research on this topic shows a heartfelt apology from the physician after something doesn't turn out well or even goes dreadfully wrong, is taken as an expression of empathy and an indication of caring. It actually minimizes the potential for lawsuits.

We all know people who can never, ever bring themselves to apologize for anything. And those people who say "I'm sorry," "I'm so sorry," "I'm sorry. They are always apologizing all over the place. Again, an apology is both an expression of sympathy. When a friend says, "some idiot side swiped my car!" We chime in, "Oh, I'm so sorry!" It's also an acceptance of responsibility. We might say, "We are not going to get this job done on time, and I apologize for that." Apologies are the first step to fixing or improving the situation or relationship. People participating in Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon, the support group, aren't supposed to talk about it, but one of the 12 steps is to apologize for past behavior, and I have personally witnessed the power of someone saying, "I am deeply sorry for what my drinking has done to this family."

Gary Chapman, a minister and author, has a book, The Five Languages of Apology, which is a roadmap for those unable to do it themselves. So, a message to Mr. Needleman over at JetBlue; we'll be back. And thank you for setting a good example.

Merrie Spaeth is a communications consultant based in Dallas and is a columnist for Dallas CEO magazine.

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