Recent public apologies from Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein and Tiger Woods made me wonder why we accept some apologies and denounce others.
Which components of a public apology show us that it is authentic and sincere and, therefore, that we can accept it? Is there a perfect public apology?
When Goldman Sachs’ CEO Lloyd Blankfein issued a public mea culpa, his goal was to convince the public that he accepted responsibility for and deeply regretted his firm’s role in the financial crisis. As a form of restitution, he offered to have Goldman invest $500 million over five years to help small businesses. Mr. Blankfein’s was the first official apology by an investment bank of that caliber, which is by itself a unique occurrence. And yet, Goldman’s apology caused a mixed reaction.
Some stakeholders gave the company credit for taking the initiative to apologize and for its willingness to help small businesses. Most others, including the general public, questioned the sincerity of the apology and its real value. The media called it a “faux apology”, a “non-apology”, a “hollow apology”, and an “unspecified apology.” The author of Mean Street blog (WSJ) Evan Newmark called it a “big PR exercise” that is “so sequenced and packaged that it’s bound to come across as disingenuous, even deeply cynical.”
The negative public reaction was caused mainly by the apparent disconnect between Goldman’s carefully calibrated message and real issues that the company still needs to fix if it is to restore public trust and earn forgiveness.
Tiger One Over Par
Tiger Woods’ attempts to apologize also caused a mixed public reaction.
On November 27, 2009 Woods crashed his car into a fire hydrant near his house. After the incident brought to light many affairs, Woods posted two separate apologies on his website, several days apart.
After the first apology mainstream media, bloggers, vendors, corporate sponsors, and the golf community expressed major disappointment and dismay at Woods’ behavior and did not accept his apology as sufficient. Woods’ story caused a lot of debate even among the apology experts. The only stakeholders who showed support were his fans. Most of them accepted his apology, demonstrating higher tolerance for his personal failings.
Woods’ second apology was more successful and resulted in mostly positive reviews among his fans, critics, media, the golf community etc. It could have been even more effective if the athlete had come clean earlier and had delivered the apology in person rather than on his website.
Why Didn’t the Apologies Work?
Why didn’t people believe Goldman Sachs CEO’s apology? Why did Woods’ first apology reach his fans but did not convince others? Why did his second apology result in more positive reaction among his stakeholders?
What type of public apology do people need to hear to be able to believe it and accept it?
The authors of “The Five Languages of Apology,” Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas, might have an answer.
When we apologize we hope that the act of sincere apology will eliminate bad consequences and automatically earn forgiveness of other people. But the authors discovered that “…sincere apologies may not always be received as sincere and forgiveness and reconciliation are not always forthcoming.”
In other words, an act of apology alone doesn’t necessarily lead to forgiveness. Rather, people tend to forgive based on their own decision-making process as triggered by various forms of language.
The authors discovered that when people apologize they tend to use one or more of 5 different languages of apology:
➢ expressing regret,
➢ accepting responsibility,
➢ making restitution,
➢ genuinely repenting,
➢ and requesting forgiveness.
Each person has his/her own primary language of apology, which is usually defined by his/her sense of morality, culture, and spiritual traditions. When making an apology, each of us would use our own primary language of apology to demonstrate how sincere our intentions are. For instance, if our personal apology language is to express regret, we will consider our own apology sincere by showing regret. But when receiving an apology, we consider the apology sincere only if it is delivered in our primary apology language of regret. Similarly, if our own apology language involves making restitution, we will believe an apology to be sincere and accept it only if it provides restitution. But what if the apology is couched in language other than our own? If we require an expression of regret as a necessary part of an apology, and the person apologizing speaks only of restitution, we won’t accept the apology.
Let’s have a quick look at 5 apology languages:
Apology language #1: Expressing regret
People whose primary apology language is expressing regret will accept an apology as sincere when they hear genuine “I’m sorry.” For them, the expression of regret is the first step to earn forgiveness. Regret demonstrates that an offender recognized his/her wrongdoing as hurtful to others and is ready to deal with it. But most important, it signals to others that the offender can express empathy for hurting other people. For people whose primary apology language is expressing regret it is very important to experience the regret verbally. In rare occasions regret can be expressed through body language. Example: Watch Kanye West apology on Jay Leno
Apology Language #2: Accepting Responsibility
According to the authors, the ability to admit mistakes and accept responsibility is the second most important component of a sincere apology, “Admitting the wrongdoing and communicating it to other stakeholders requires humility and honesty. Without these or similar words that accept responsibility for one’s wrong behavior, they will not sense that the other person has sincerely apologized.” For people whose primary apology language is accepting responsibility, hearing the words “I was wrong” communicates the apologist’s willingness to take responsibility and make the first step to earn forgiveness.
Apology Language #3: Making Restitution
For some people restitution is the most important component of a sincere apology, “The idea of making things right to make up for a wrong is embedded within the human psyche, and both our judicial system and our human relationships are deeply influenced by this fundamental idea.“ For these people, restitution is the tangible measure of a sincere apology. For people whose primary apology language is making restitution, the most important part is the apology aftermath – how the offender fixes or remediates the issue.
Apology Language #4: Genuinely Repenting
Some people will argue that the most important part of a true apology is repentance and a promise of the offender not to repeat the wrongdoing. Repentance, often used as a synonym of remorse and regret, in fact, has a more complex meaning. The Greek word for repentance – metanoia– means “to think differently after” – to take a new point of view and find a better way. For people whose primary apology language is genuine repentance, the most important part of an apology will be “an expression of intent to change” behavior or way of thinking about an issue, situation, or an individual. The intent to change comes in three parts: a promise to change, a plan how to make this change happen, an action.
Apology Language #5: Requesting forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a generous act of letting go of resentment and retaliation. The authors’ research showed that one in every 5 people (21%) expects an apologist to ask for forgiveness. For people whose primary apology language is requesting forgiveness, the most important part of a sincere apology is the offender’s need to be forgiven because it shows that he/she “is willing to put the future of the relationships in the hands of the offended person” and wants to see the relationships fully restored.
Having interviewed individuals and married couples the authors noticed that there is lack of persuasive apologies between couples because people tend to speak different languages when they apologize. Seventy five percent of married couples, according to the authors of the book, differ in their primary apology language. In 15% of the couples one member’s primary language is the other member’s last choice, “ If you apologize to your spouse in the way that you most want to be apologized to, our data suggest that, on average, you wouldn’t stumble upon his or her favorite apology language until your third attempt.” That means that three out of four families must learn an apology language different from what they would like to hear. Most people internalize one or two languages of apology and use or expect to hear them exclusively when an apology is in order. As the author explains, “For most people, one or two of three speak more deeply or sincerity than the others. You don’t need to include all five languages to offer an effective apology. For an apology to be accepted, you need to speak the language (or perhaps two languages) that conveys to the offended your sincerity. Then he or she will regard your apology as genuine and will likely accept it.”
Using 2 or 3 languages in personal and one-on-one apologies can be sufficient to match the apology demands of the affected party. But does it mean that using only 2 or 3 apology languages will work effectively for companies and individuals that are facing a multiplicity of stakeholders?
In crisis, the reputation of a company or an individual often depends on their ability to respond quickly by admitting the wrongdoing and genuinely apologizing. Every organization has a multiplicity of stakeholders: customers, employees, distributors, regulators, shareholders, local and international communities, critics and fans. And each of these constituencies has its own primary language of apology. For some, an expression of regret would be enough to demonstrate a sincere apology, for others it won’t be sufficient. Hence, to deliver a sincere and effective public apology, a company or individual has to hit all 5 notes of apology chord, or in other words, speak all 5 languages of apology.
The apologies from Mr. Blankfein and Woods demonstrate how using 2 or 3 languages of apology might not be sufficient when the company faces a multiplicity of stakeholders.
Goldman Sachs CEO’s apology
In his apology, Mr. Blankfein clearly used two apology languages: expressing regret and accepting responsibility, “We participated in things that were clearly wrong and have reason to regret.” Despite the fact that he failed to name the wrongdoing and specify to whom he is apologizing to, Mr. Blankfein still managed to get his 2 apology languages across. He failed, however, to speak the other three languages: making restitution, showing genuine repentance and requesting forgiveness.
1. Mr. Blankfein did not provide sufficient restitution. The restitution of $500M offered by the company couldn’t really suffice for a meaningful contribution because it was just a small fraction of Goldman Sachs’ business and was directed at a group other than those directly affected by Goldman’s actions. The New York Times opined, “…if Goldman wants to make a meaningful contribution, it would have to be in the billions and aimed more directly at taxpayers.”
2. Mr. Blankfein did not show repentance. Mr. Blankfein demonstrated the lack of true repentance on his side by not willing to change the company’s behavior. His apology was not his first attempt to try to win public trust. In February 2009 Mr. Blankfein wrote a piece for the Financial Times about responsibility in the financial sector where he agreed that, “People are understandably angry and our industry has to account for its role in what has transpired.” In June 2009 he was criticized for bragging about his company while trying to show regret about the financial crisis, “While we regret that we participated in the market euphoria and failed to raise a responsible voice, we are proud of the way our firm managed the risk it assumed on behalf of our client before and during the financial crisis.”
As Crisis Musings blog wrote, “Companies successfully work their way out of a problem because they address the problem, and not just the perception of the problem. In other words, a business problem requires a business fix. A letter of apology or regret published in a newspaper solves nothing.”
3. Mr. Blankfein did not ask for forgiveness. The company’s CEO failed to speak the 5th language of apology – requesting public forgiveness. The apology came across as a one-way message to the rest of the world that did not demonstrate a true intent of Goldman’s executives to earn public forgiveness. As Mark Gilbert from Bloomberg wrote, “Goldman and its peers need to practice humility and contrition for an extended period, rather than seeking image-buffing headlines with token gestures.”
Mr. Blankfein’s apology had a much better chance to communicate the message of responsibility and regret for the financial crisis. Unfortunately, by making a half apology, he lost this chance and failed to win the trust of stakeholders. Mr. Blankfein apology became the first public apology ever made by an investment bank, and for that Mr. Blankfein deserves some credit. But if the leader of Goldman Sachs ever decides to make another public mea culpa, he should learn his stakeholders’ primary apology languages and make sure that he uses them all in his apology. He also should remember that the willingness of his stakeholders to grant forgiveness might not be immediately available and earning forgiveness might take a long time.
Tiger Woods’ apologies
Tiger Woods’ first apology was posted on his website on December 2, 2009 and had 2.5 languages of apology: expressing regret and taking responsibility, “I have let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves.”
He made an attempt to use the language of repentance by promising to be “…. a better person and the husband and father…,” but never explained what he was planning to do to accomplish that.
What did Woods fail to do?
– Tiger never said directly “What I did was wrong.”
– He tried to justify his actions by saying,
“I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect.”
– He didn’t immediately apologize to his family for hurting them and to his fans for disappointing them.
– He failed to provide restitution.
– And failed to ask for forgiveness.
Most of the general public found it is hard to accept his apology, “… when so much dirt comes in the press every day. There is no crisis management possible, because, by not addressing this issue right from the start, Tiger Woods lost all the credibility he ever had.” (From Everything PR blog) On the contrary, a lot of Woods’ fans remained more tolerant to the athlete’s personal failings. Based on my assessment of the comments on his Facebook page and his website, the majority of the fans accepted his apology or remained neutral.
Some comments from Tiger Woods blog:
” That’s good enough for me. First act of healing is admitting the problem. It is never too late to do the right thing…”
“72 wins, 13 majors. Remember when he crushed the field by more than ten strokes winning his first green jacket? How about the 2008 US Open, winning on a broken leg. This is the stuff that made Tiger who he is, not his personal image. All any of us should care about is his golf career and how he changed the game of golf by opening the door to young (and old) minority golfers around the world.”
Tiger Woods’ apology sparked debate even among apology experts. The thought leader on apology, John Kador argued in his blog that Tiger Woods is accountable to the public for his transgressions and therefore owes a public apology. He wrote, “Tiger Woods is perhaps the world’s wealthiest and most privileged athlete. From where does that wealth and privilege derive? From his talent, no doubt, but also from a compact he has made with his sponsors and the public. It has been a carefully cultivated compact that goes way beyond his performance on the golf course and from which he continues to draw resources.”
The authors of Perfect Apology blog, took a different stance on this issue and offered their perspective, “Tiger owes the public and his fans a “public” apology — which is precisely what he delivered ….. To claim that Tiger somehow OWES these people a more detailed apology than the one he has already offered, when they themselves have profited enormously from Tiger’s talent, is a bit of a stretch.”
The second apology was posed on December 11, 2009 and was addressed to Woods’ family, fans, Golf foundation, business partners, the PGA Tour, and fellow competitors. Most Tiger’s critics accepted his apology but still criticized him for failing to communicate to the public directly.
This time Tiger hit all five notes of a sincere apology chord:
– He expressed regret and accepted responsibility for what he did, specifying the wrongdoing, ”I am deeply aware of the disappointment and hurt that my infidelity has caused to so many people, most of all my wife and children.”
– He extended his apology to the public, “I would like to ask everyone, including my fans, the good people at my foundation, business partners, the PGA Tour, and my fellow competitors, for their understanding.”
– He asked the public for forgiveness, “I want to say again to everyone that I am profoundly sorry and that I ask forgiveness…”
– He showed a sign of genuine repentance, “It may not be possible to repair the damage I’ve done, but I want to do my best to try.”
– He offered restitution and proved that he is ready to pay any price to redeem his transgressions, “After much soul searching, I have decided to take an indefinite break from professional golf. I need to focus my attention on being a better husband, father, and person.”
– And finally, Tiger expressed his gratitude to his supporters,
“….I am especially grateful for all those who have offered compassion and concern during this difficult period.”
Tiger did a better job with the second apology using all five languages of apology and got more positive reviews from his fans, apology experts and the general public. See below:
Comments from Tiger Woods blog:
“You are an awesome golfer & now you need to be an awesome father & husband. Take the time to fix/mend this situation….Anyone who is a fan, like me, will always be a fan.”
“… I have an 11yr or girl and a 9 year old boy who just adore Tiger. I explained to them in detail what is going on and what Tiger has done and instead of them turning their backs on him, both of them said ” dad, can we pray for Tiger tonight” They have been praying for him for the past 3 nights….”
From Perfect Apology:
“…the most significant additional item in this round is the announcement by Tiger that he will take an indefinite leave of absence from golf to focus on repairing the damage. …the second apology offers at least some additional restitution.”
From Effective Apology:
“….Woods finally delivered a statement that, for the first time, demonstrated his acknowledgment that while he may be entitled to a measure of privacy, he is not entitled to total secrecy…. “
Even PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem backed Woods and tried to reframe his role as an underdog , “I think people will look at the number one athlete of the decade and pull for him, now really in an underdog position….”
But there was still a lot of criticism of Woods’ failure to deliver the apology directly to the public. Phil Taylor from Golf.com wrote, “If he wants to regain anything approaching the high regard the public once had for him, he’s going to have to open up to us more — and for a man who named his yacht Privacy, that’s going to be harder than winning the U.S. Open on a wrecked knee.” Some people left comments of Tiger Woods Facebook page,“Tiger, you really need to get out from behind your curtain. No more statements posted on a website. Get in front of the cameras and take it like a man.” Woods’ corporate sponsors didn’t buy his apology either and stopped airing the ads. Accenture became the first corporate sponsor to publicly announce that Tiger Woods is “no longer the right representative” of the company.
Why did Tiger’s apologies get mixed public reactions? In his first apology, Tiger used only 2.5 out of 5 apology languages and received a negative public reaction. In his second apology, Tiger used all five languages of apology and received a more positive reaction from most of his constituencies. Unfortunately, by issuing two online apologies and failing to face the public directly, he let his critics define the situation and watched his reputation go down the drain. From crisis management point of view, Tiger did a terrible job of handling the crisis – he broke all rules of effective crisis response and crisis communications. And for that he deserves the lowest grades.
What lessons can Goldman Sachs’ and Tiger Woods’ apologies teach us?
1. Public apology is always intended for multiple stakeholders.
Public apologies differ from personal apologies simply because they tend to reach much bigger audiences. No matter who is apologizing, a company or an individual, each of them will have to face multiple stakeholders that are very diverse in their sense of morality, culture and spiritual traditions. Hence, all stakeholders will be making judgments about the sincerity of a public apology based on their individual values.
2. Effective public apology is a 5-note chord.
Public apology should be very well thought through and address each stakeholder group using its primary language of apology. Sometimes, it’s enough to incorporate 2 or 3 languages of apology to reach the key stakeholders and make a good public apology. However, considering the diversity and complexity of stakeholders’ cultural and spiritual background, public apology would be more effective if a company or an individual includes all five languages of apology: Expressing Regret, Accepting Responsibility, Making Restitution, Genuinely Repenting, and Requesting Forgiveness. In other words, public apology is always more effective if an apologist plays all five notes of apology chord.