“Sorry” Seems to Be the Hardest Word

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Aug 27, 2004 ... the cycle is continued when a new message is sent, by the same steps, back to the original sender. “Noise” may disrupt communication ...
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Communication in Organizations


the cycle is continued when a new message is sent, by the same steps, back to the original sender. “Noise” may disrupt communication anywhere along the way. Noise can be the sound of someone coughing, a truck driving by, or two people talking close at hand. It can also include disruptions such as a letter lost in the mail, a dead telephone line, an interrupted cell phone call, an e-mail misrouted or infected with a virus, or one of the participants in a conversation being called away before the communication process is completed. Today’s Management Issues describes how noise can affect a manager’s efforts to admit mistakes or wrongdoing.

“Sorry” Seems to Be the Hardest Word

I’m not sure if [Jim Koch, founder of Boston Brewing] is sorry he did what he did or if he’s just sorry he got caught. — Jim McGettrick, owner of the Beachcomber bar in Quincy, Massachusetts*

Corporate managers have a lot to apologize for. Accounting scandals, insider trading, fraud, unsafe products, environmental disasters, discrimination, and invasion of privacy have made headlines in recent months. Why, then, do executives find it so hard to say, “I’m sorry”? Blame it on the lawyers. Corporate leaders are afraid to express remorse for fear of looking guilty in court. “The first reaction in many companies . . . is to hunker down and fight,” says lawyer Philip K. Howard. “A lot of times, that just gets them into a bigger mess.” Managers in denial have included Martha Stewart, who called insider-trading charges “ridiculous,” and former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who claimed he is “immensely proud” of what he accomplished there. Thirty-seven percent of malpractice patients say they would not have sued if the doctor had apologized. One Veteran’s Administration hospital always apologizes for errors, without regard for legal consequences. That hospital has the lowest malpractice claims of all VA facilities. An America West vice president went on the Today show to apologize to a customer who was thrown off a flight for making a joke. The passenger publicly forgave the airline. Yet even when managers apologize, they must do so correctly. Merrill Lynch issued an apology for

e-mails that showed company analysts misleading their clients. But the apology only expressed regret for the e-mails themselves, not for the fraudulent behavior that the e-mails exposed. Jim Koch, founder of Boston Brewing, sponsored a distasteful public relations stunt involving Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the site of funerals for many of the firefighters who perished during the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Offended bar owners forced Koch to confess. However, the apology was two weeks late, and Koch failed to accept responsibility. Bar owner Jim McGettrick says, “I’m not sure if he’s sorry he did what he did or if he’s just sorry he got caught.” BusinessWeek writer Mike France recommends that, first, managers apologize quickly. Second, they should apologize bravely, speaking in plain English instead of legalese. Third, they should apologize clearly. They need to acknowledge the law that was violated, admit its importance, and accept the consequences. Fourth, managers must apologize authoritatively, accepting responsibility at the highest level of the organization. References: “Grubman Hit with $15 Million Fine,” CNN/Money, December 20, 2002, www.cnn.com on February 12, 2003; Joshua Hyatt, “What Was He Drinking?” Fortune Small Business, November 1, 2002, www.fortune.com on November 24, 2002 (*quote); Mike France, “The Mea Culpa Defense,” BusinessWeek, August 26, 2002, pp. 76–78.