Public Apologies Doomed to Fail Without Authenticity, Sincerity

November 4, 2019 LRN Corporation

Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg testified in front of the U.S. Congress last week about the crashes of Boeing 737 Max planes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. With the grieving families of some of the 346 victims in attendance, Muilenburg apologized to them directly, saying: “We are sorry. Deeply and truly sorry.”

The apology from Boeing’s CEO is the latest in a string of high-profile apologies. Wells Fargo apologized in 2016 for opening unauthorized accounts in customers’ names; United Airlines for forcibly removing a passenger in 2017; Facebook for its data scandal with Cambridge Analytica in 2018; Starbucks for the arrest of two men at a Philadelphia location in 2018. News Corp. still is apologizing for a phone-hacking scandal that occurred almost a decade ago.

In a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor, featuring insights from LRN Founder and Chairman Dov Seidman, reporter Laurent Belsie wrote Muilenburg’s testimony was an opportunity for him to demonstrate moral leadership.

As Seidman said in the article: “The thirst for moral leadership, especially from individuals who occupy positions of formal leadership, senior positions...continues to be high.”

The article spotlights LRN’s findings from the Moral Leadership in Business Report, namely that only 14% of U.S. employees say their business leaders acknowledge their own failings, and just 13% say leaders make amends when they get things wrong.

What goes into an authentic public apology?

Scholar Aaron Lazare, in his book, “On Apology,” said a true apology is not simply acknowledging the offense and offering a genuine apology, it’s pledging “a commitment to make changes in the future.”

Seidman, in an interview with NPR in 2014 after public apologies from then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, echoed this sentiment. “Apologies are about getting us into something," he said. "And we need to start to measure the authenticity and effectiveness of an apology, in its aftermath over time.”

When it comes to a company in crisis, Seidman told The Christian Science Monitor pausing and conducting some form of a moral audit, including asking very deep questions, is key.

A company should ask, “Have we put in place incentives–such as being the biggest, or being No. 1, or being a competitor, or making more profit than anybody else–that had more primacy than our principles and doing the right thing?” he said.

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