In business you should accept the blame, or risk the pain

From stupid comments, to bad political moves, to brushes with the law, these days it seems that there’s a steadier stream than ever of apologetic press conferences and media statements from politicians, athletes and entertainment celebrities. Though these high-profile personalities often seem to emerge unscathed regardless of their offenses, the manner in which they handle their mea culpas usually determines the speed and degree of the rebound, and certainly affects their image in the eyes of the public

The same is true for business. Whether it’s a massive crisis like the Tylenol tampering deaths of 1982, or a lesser catastrophe like last year’s Lululemon yoga pants dust up, when the founder seemed to hint that the pants weren't for all body types (larger women) -- the handling of an apology almost always has more impact on the outcome than does the incident itself.

Take the story of sports columnist Bill Simmons. Simmons, who edits the sports blog, greenlit a post that outed a golf putter inventor as being transgender, shortly after the inventor committed suicide. Simmons issued an apology.

In a recent USA Today article, columnist Rem Reider compares several stories of contrition, focusing mainly on Simmons' poor editorial judgement. In the article, Reider talks about the value of immediate and complete acknowledgment of fault in mitigating damage; that’s rule number one in business as well.

I’ve written before about the importance of transparency and accountability, but the ever-increasing number of public “my bads” call for a refresher on the best way to handle things when you know you’ve made a mistake. It doesn’t matter if it’s an order error or an oil spill, or whether it involves customers, shareholders, employees, suppliers or superiors.

Here is a quick how-to:

1.  Admit fault and apologize immediately and completely. Just spit it out. You screwed up and you’re sorry. The quicker you take full accountability, the better the outcome, always. If you think in terms of “scoring points,” as we often say in business, you lose some of those points every moment an appropriate apology is delayed. Time is not your friend when someone feels you’ve done them wrong.

2.  Mean it. If you know you made a mistake, or are responsible for a problem, there is no excuse for an insincere apology delivered just to smooth things over. Don’t craft a sketchy, marketing-driven announcement or press release (we all know what they look like). Don’t talk around it. Don’t insult the people you mean to reassure. Jump up – literally or figuratively – and own up.

3.  Don’t qualify, not even a little. If the word “but” is in your apology, it’s much less of an apology. It’s like a schoolyard bully saying “I’m sorry I hit you, but you shouldn’t have been standing there.” Just stop after the sorry part. Anything other than that is an excuse, and an excuse is the opposite of accountability. You can explain what happened – that can often be an important part of an apology – but only if the information helps the other party, and only if it is meticulously scrubbed of anything defensive. Just the facts, ma’am.

4.  Explain what you’re going to do to make things right, and do it. Be specific about the make-good, how it will be handled, on what timeline -- whatever the situation calls for. More importantly, do everything you say when you say you’ll do it. Having your apology accepted was already your second chance, so the fix is technically your third. You probably won’t get a fourth.

Whether incidental or monumental, own your mess-ups. It might make you feel vulnerable and embarrassed. It may crush your pride. You might not even think you’re entirely at fault, or that you owe an apology (if you’re even wondering that, chances are you do). But the short-term sting of being immediately and unequivocally accountable is nothing compared to the potential long term pain of an ill-conceived, poorly delivered explanation, much less none at all.