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Hard to Say I'm Sorry

Perhaps your business has had a public relations problem at some point. Whatever is was, I’ll bet it wasn’t as bad as viral video of someone being dragged off your premises. Talk about a black eye for United Airlines.

Why, then, was it not until the third public appearance by United CEO Oscar Munoz that the world heard something resembling an apology? The first two times we heard a lot of jargon about “procedures” being followed, as in, “Who are you going to believe? Me or your own lying eyes?”

I find it baffling that so many of us are so slow to apologize, whether in personal or business situations. Even in circumstances where the wrongdoing isn’t nearly as clear-cut as the United debacle, a sincere apology can calm the waters and get everyone working towards a resolution.

I make mistakes. You make mistakes. Our employees – and by extension, our companies – make mistakes. Stuff happens, and when it does we need to acknowledge it before we can hope to move on.

And here’s the thing: saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t not necessarily mean accepting blame for what occurred. We can, and should, express sympathy even if we’ve done nothing wrong. And people will still respond better than they will if we let our pride get in the way and start pushing back with all the reasons it wasn’t our fault.

The most famous case study here involves the lawn-and-garden equipment company, Toro. In 1991, alarmed by rising legal fees for liability claims, Toro decided to try something new. Whenever an injury involving one of their products was reported, they immediately dispatched a company representative to say, “We’re sorry.” Not, “We’re guilty, it was our fault,” just “We’re sorry this happened to you, and we’ll do our best to help you through it.”

So how did that work out? Toro saved an estimated $75 million in legal fees and liability insurance premiums by the end of the decade. That is the power of a simple but sincere apology.

Try it yourself and see: next time a client, or even a family member, accuses you of screwing up, resist the temptation to get your back up. Instead, say, “I’m sorry that happened. Let’s see if we can figure out what went wrong,” and go from there. And it should go without saying, but if you did mess up, take full responsibility and make it better.

You might be surprised at the results.

Mike Popowski is President of PBI Restorations. Reach him at mike@pbirestores.com.