Few of the leaders in office recognise a mistake, apologise and ask for forgiveness. This is why these words of Angela Merkel, at the end of March, about her management of the health crisis and the tightening of health rules at Easter surprised and marked the spirits: “This error is my error and my error alone. Because in the end, it is I who bears the responsibility for everything, through my mandate. I deeply regret this error and I apologise to fellow citizens for the confusion it may have caused.”
Angela Merkel has thus stood out from the overwhelming majority of other leaders who refuse to recognise their mistakes or do so belatedly, under pressure and lip service. We remember, for example, Richard Nixon who repeatedly used the expression “mistakes were made” at the time of Watergate to try to mitigate his responsibility. Or even Henry Kissinger responding in a fleeting manner to accusations against him: “Errors were probably made by the administration in which I served.”
In his management of the Covid-19 pandemic in Quebec, which has caused the death of more than 10,000 citizens, Prime Minister François Legault has cleared himself of any error. As for the French President, Emmanuel Macron, he stressed that “the one who does not make mistakes is the one who does not seek, who does nothing or who mechanically does the same thing as the day before”.
For six years, I have been interested in management and leadership errors. I have collected over 200 mistakes made by managers and leaders. Most of these mistakes are false good ideas: what appears to be good practice in the eyes of managers is actually bad practice according to scientific research in management. It just seems like a bad idea to not apologise for something wrong.
Real and False Excuses
Angela Merkel’s apology is a real apology, seems sincere and spontaneous, which contrasts with the false apologies:
• The empty excuse of being content with a simple “I’m sorry”. It gives the impression of a forced apology, that the person saying these words doesn’t really mean them. This is the case of Kissinger, who waited until he retired and pressed by a journalist to discuss any mistakes that had been made.
• The excessive excuses consists of over-playing excuses, too many and too long, or of confusing oneself as an excuse by putting forward: “I’m sorry, I feel so bad, I can’t sleep all night…”. There is a role reversal: the one who apologises tries to make the other cry, pretends to be the victim. A message of contrition prepared with a communications firm is often too elaborate to seem sincere. Here is for example that of Tiger Woods accused of adultery: “I have let down my family, and I regret these transgressions with all my heart. I have not been true to my values and the behaviour my family deserves. I am not without faults and I am far from perfect.” His apology lacks simplicity and authenticity; it is not his usual way of speaking.
• The incomplete apology which consists of a partial apology such as: “I’m sorry for what happened”, “I’m sorry you felt bad”. The person does not directly recognise his responsibility, does not ask for forgiveness. Richard Nixon typically falls into this category by acknowledging the existence of errors without acknowledging being the author.
Continue the Relationship
What are the excuses for? To express your inner emotion in order to repair and continue the relationship with the injured people, explains Professor Nicolas Tavuchis in his book ‘Mea culpa’.
Apologies respond to an expectation of injured people, defuse their anger and make them feel that both parties belong to the same community: they share a certain humanity. Some studies also show that the excuses are good to trespass, but also to the offender: self-esteem and pride increase.
Weakness or Strength?
So why are leaders reluctant to apologise? Because they underestimate the benefits and overestimate the cost. They fear that such an act will pass for an admission of weakness. However, leaders who recognise their mistakes and offer real and sincere apologies see their image improve. It is a mark of humility, which makes others want to follow them more. It is also a guarantee of confidence.
A good example is the case of Michael McCain, CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, who had to apologise after 20 people died from listeria as a result of eating rotten meat. McCain admitted that as a leader he was responsible for it. He did not seek to downplay the facts or point to others responsible. Its priority was to restore consumer confidence and take action to ensure that such a tragedy does not happen again. His speech seems to have been correct, because the media have praised the crisis management put in place by the company. And consumer confidence skyrocketed shortly thereafter.
Recognising one’s responsibility is also highlighting one’s power. When a leader attributes negative events to external causes, he conveys an image of uncertainty and helplessness. For example, when business leaders suggest that the bad results are related to external causes, the stock price goes down. In contrast, an 18-year study in the United States by researchers Gerald Salancik and James Meindl shows that when executives highlight internal causes and propose solutions, the value of their company’s actions increases. Why? Because the leaders show that they control the situation.
To deny all responsibility is also to suggest that you do not learn from your mistakes. However, as the philosopher and writer George Santayana indicates in his book ‘The Life of Reason’: “when the experience is not retained […] childhood is perpetual. Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it”.
Leaders would therefore benefit from taking inspiration from Angela Merkel, acknowledging their mistakes and offering real apologies. As long as they seem sincere. Otherwise, the cure would be worse than the disease!
Error and Error
There is, however, one exception. Behavioural errors (being clumsy, impulsive, dishonest…) are considered less forgivable than errors in judgment (making a bad decision). They are sometimes more akin to mistakes than errors and seem directly linked to the personality of its author. However, the personality of an individual is stable. So other “blunders” are likely to occur, like the comic book character Gaston Lagaffe who multiplies them.
Justin Trudeau is arguably the Western leader who has apologised the most in his career. But his apologies relate above all to his behavioural errors (jostling of a deputy, face made up in black, dubious contract with UNIS). Or, his apologies relate to events that have occurred in the past (of Canada) for which he is not directly responsible. That is why he does not derive much benefit from it.
(The author is Researcher at the University of Quebec in Montreal, University of Quebec in Montreal. theconversation.com)
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