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Why CEOs Still Can't Say 'I'm Sorry'

Though some top executives have learned the art of apologizing, others compound their company's PR problems by failing to take responsibility. Welcome to the "aquarium!"

BP CEO Tony Hayward in May 2010
BP CEO Tony Hayward in May 2010
Maayan Manela

TEL AVIV — Facebook "forgot" to tell its users about their unwitting participation in its experiments, BP caused the history's worst oil spill, and an Israeli dairy company added silicon to milk. Companies make mistakes all the time. Some are truly grave ones. When it happens, some CEOs choose to apologize and fix the scandal, while others apparently can't bring themselves to say they erred.

Why is it so difficult for managers to apologize?

After it was revealed that Facebook engaged users in a behavioral experiment without their consent or even awareness, the company's COO Sheryl Sandberg used the semi-apology tactic. "We never meant to upset you," she said at the time, pretty much avoiding any apology at all.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick never actually apologized after his senior vice president Emil Michael threatened to dig up dirt on journalists who criticized the company. Kalanick instead simply tweeted that Michael's comments didn't represent the company, but he didn't apologize for them. Nothing says "we're sorry" like a 140-character non-apology.

When the massive explosion on BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig caused a devastating spill in the Gulf of Mexico — the largest in U.S. history — then-CEO Tony Hayward apologized for the disturbances the oil spill caused to the daily routine of residents. But in what The New York Times characterized as the "sound bite from hell," he immediately added, "I'd like my life back."

When a recent accident in the Trans-Israel Pipeline led to a massive oil spill in a desert nature reserve, the company not only didn't apologize but it initially reported that the spill was smaller than it actually was.

But there are executives who do apologize for mistakes. In 2007, an Israeli TV investigation revealed that products from the food company Osem were kept in the sun for hours instead of being stored in refrigerators. The CEO at the time apologized for the mistake and promised to tackle the problems.

Own it

But why is it so difficult for managers to face their clients and say, "I was wrong"?

"Managers don't apologize because an apology is seen as a weakness, and if we perceive the manager as weak, then the organization is weak, and no organization wants to be seen that way," says Tali Eichenwald-Dvir, deputy dean of the Arison School of Business at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel.

Managers also don't want to sound inconsistent, she adds. In our culture, there is an overemphasis on consistency, and if a manager retracts or admits a mistake they are often considered inconsistent.

In addition, admitting an error quite literally has a price since taking responsibility can have financial and legal ramifications. Apart from these implications, the public response to apologies can be confusing.

"On one hand, clients might say, "what's the issue?"" says Eichenwald-Dvir. "Let the manager apologize, acknowledge the mistake and we will accept it. On the other hand, sometimes when a person apologizes, it's not really seen favorably. The public is truly divided."

And yet, she is unequivocal in her recommendation that executives apologize. A manager doesn't have to report each and every misguided decision, but when things go badly wrong, they should take responsibility.

"Every executive should consider themselves as if they were living in an aquarium," Eichenwald-Dvir says. "In the past, you could seal deals and hide mistakes not to pay the price of admitting an error. Today it's almost impossible."

And once a manager has decided to apologize, it should be a real one, not an evasive one. "The level of transparency has increased dramatically, and so has the level of customer sophistication," she says. "Today it's much more difficult to fool people. A half-apology is the most annoying thing for customers. For them the message is that the organization acknowledges the mistake but at the same time doesn't fully admit it."

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