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CEOs need to learn how to say ‘I’m sorry’

Managers often find it hard to say "I'm sorry," even for behavior which is clearly out of bounds. And the higher the management level, the more difficult this seems to be.

Perhaps that's why people were slightly startled by the extremely clear and direct apology issued by Michael Horn, head of the Volkswagen Group of America, after VW was caught cheating on emissions tests: "Our company was dishonest ... we have totally screwed up. We have to make things right with the government, the public, our customers, our employees ... We are committed to do what must be done and to begin to restore your trust."

That was followed by the resignation of Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn.

Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn.
Getty Images
Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn.

Why managers find apologizing difficult

There are, of course, valid legal reasons for avoiding public acknowledgement of wrongdoing. However, true apologies are also rare because many executives might be psychologically categorized as "non-apologists."

Currently, the most obvious and extreme example is Donald Trump, whose excessive fear of admitting mistakes was evident long before he began his run for president. Nothing he does is wrong, errors are always someone else's fault, and anyone who disagrees is a "loser."

Non-apologists can never admit fault because doing so triggers basic insecurities. For many managers, their greatest fear is appearing weak, so they try to sustain an image of infallibility. Ironically, however, this often creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, since the refusal to acknowledge obvious mistakes is one sign of a weak leader.

A good apology requires 'three R's'

On the same day as the Volkswagen apology, the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America, Stuart Parnell, was sentenced to 28 years in prison for knowingly shipping salmonella-contaminated products which killed nine people and sickened hundreds more.

According to news reports, Mr. Parnell's statement in court included the following comments: "[I am] personally embarrassed, humiliated, and morally disgraced by what happened ... This has been a seven-year nightmare for me and my family. I'm truly sorry for what's happened ... I think about [the victims] every day."

If this strikes you as somewhat inadequate, you are probably not alone. Mr. Parnell's self-centered remarks seem to highlight the negative effects on him, not the victims, and never address his own culpability.

According to Beverly Engel of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a meaningful apology must include "three R's" — regret, responsibility, and remedy. That is, you must convey true remorse, take responsibility for your actions, and indicate your intention to repair the harm or avoid repeating the mistake.

A few years back, Apple CEO Tim Cook provided a good example in his response to the Apple Maps problem: "We strive to . . . deliver the best possible experience to our customers. [With Apple Maps], we fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better."

Now that actually sounds like an apology.

So what should managers learn from this?

If you are in a management role, or eventually hope to be, here are three simple takeaways to remember:

1. Be honest with yourself. Recognize when you've screwed up. Don't try to protect your ego by denying the problem or looking for someone else to blame.

2. Be honest with others. While excessive apologizing is counterproductive, failing to acknowledge obvious errors will only make you appear weak and insecure.

3. Offer a real apology. Remember the three R's. And don't try to excuse yourself by blaming the other person — as in, "I'm sorry I got so angry, but your report was really late."

Of course, remorseful words only count if they are accompanied by appropriate actions. When you learn that Stuart Parnell tried to block his victims' relatives from speaking in court, his apology sounds even more empty. Volkswagen, on the other hand, appears to be serious with the CEO resigning, and an announcement that it is "expecting further personnel consequences in the next days."

Commentary by Marie McIntyre, a career coach (www.yourofficecoach.com) and the author of "Secrets to Winning at Office Politics." Follow her on Twitter @officecoach.