On Friday, Norwood Teague resigned as the University of Minnesota’s athletic director after two sexual-harassment charges were filed by two nonstudent university employees. Teague’s statement included the phrases, “[I] had entirely too much to drink” and sent “truly inappropriate texts.” And “I behaved badly toward nice people. … I’m embarrassed and I apologize. …”
Genuine apologies are about the victims, not the perpetrators. An apology is the atomic energy of empathy. Genuine apologies stop more bad things from happening.
The most powerful action in reputation recovery and rehabilitation is to apologize. If you want or need forgiveness, you’ll need to apologize. “Wait a minute,” you say, “the lawyers won’t ever let me apologize.” Well, let’s talk about apology — understand it — and then we’ll get back to the attorneys.
Management avoids apologizing by using an amazing array of avoidance strategies. There’s self-forgiveness: “It’s an industry problem; we’re not the only ones” or “Let’s not blow this out of proportion.” There’s self-talk: “It’s only an isolated incident,” “It’s never happened before,” “Not very many were involved” and “This is not who we are.”
In this case, add self-forgiveness to the technique: I was drunk; I sent several inappropriate e-mails; I behaved badly toward nice people; I’m embarrassed and I apologize. Teague could have said with equal non-effect: “It won’t ever happen again,” “I am not a crook” and “I did not have sex with these people.”
What was wrong with Teague’s apology? There was no admission that what he did made others suffer and be shamed. He simply never apologized at all. “I was embarrassed and I apologize.” He forgave himself first, protected the people around him, and never directly addressed the pain and suffering caused by his actions.
Forgiveness by the victims, which is the purpose of an apology, is a process.
The most constructive structure for apology I’ve seen is in “The Five Languages of Apology,” a book by Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas. Here, with some paraphrasing and modification based on my experiences, are the ingredients of the perfect apology.
1) Regret (acknowledgment): A verbal acknowledgment by the perpetrator that the wrongful behavior caused unnecessary pain, suffering and hurt that identifies, specifically, what action or behavior is responsible for the pain.
2) Accepting responsibility (declaration): An unconditional declarative statement by the perpetrator recognizing the wrongful behavior and acknowledging that there is no excuse for it.
3) Restitution (penance): An offer of help or assistance to victims, by the perpetrator; action beyond the words “I’m sorry,” and conduct that assumes the responsibility to make the situation right.
4) Repentance (humility): Language by the perpetrator acknowledging that this behavior caused pain and suffering for which he/she is genuinely sorry; language by the perpetrator recognizing that serious, unnecessary harm and emotional damage was caused.
5) A direct request for forgiveness: “I was wrong, I hurt you and I ask you to forgive me.”
The most difficult and challenging aspects of apologizing are to admit having done something hurtful, damaging or wrong, and to request forgiveness. Skip even one step, and you simply fail.
Do apologies matter? Twenty-nine states seem to think so. These states have enacted legislation exempting voluntary expressions of regret and apology at traffic accidents from being considered by juries when setting auto-liability damages. Legislation is pending in Congress to mitigate the impact of liability on malpractice insurance claims against doctors and medical personnel who apologize immediately, or very quickly, and sincerely. Several states have enacted similar laws for health care workers.
The biggest problem with apology is the attitude among leaders and their attorneys that apology is a sign of weakness. My advice is: Get over it. There’s mounting statistical evidence in health care that apologies — even if they are required by insurance companies (which they more frequently are) — are having a dramatic effect on reducing litigation and related costs.
So now we’re back to the attorneys. When the lawyers say you can’t apologize because it’s an admission of something (which it is), you can tell them (with nearly absolute certainty) that an apology will, at a minimum, mitigate and, at a maximum, eliminate litigation. An apology may be the trigger to settlement.
Failure to apologize is always a trigger for litigation.
Today’s legal reality is that only one in 200 civil cases filed ever get to trial. Instead, these cases will be settled, dismissed or resolved by some other mechanism such as arbitration.
Empathy is actions that speak louder than words. Apology is the atomic energy of empathy. Failure to apologize is an integrity lapse that causes the corrosive destruction of reputation and creates an impression of arrogance and callousness.
College athletics, as well as professional sports, are rife with examples of sexual harassment and sexual assault. “Zero tolerance” seems good, but it also seems to equal zero impact on the perpetrator, zero memory for the institution sponsoring the perpetrator and zero the number of university leaders held to account. Zero-tolerance policies need to be rethought, especially in an educational environment, to be replaced by more potent teaching and culture-change activities.
The University of Minnesota actually justified Teague’s behavior by saying he had been “overserved” (translation: shift the blame to the bartender). “It is disappointing and disheartening to learn about the events that led to [Teague’s] resignation,” said Dean Johnson, chairman of the university’s Board of Regents. The question is: unfortunate and disheartening for whom? The university or the victims? Clearly, the university would like Mr. Teague to leave the campus quietly and promptly.
Additional reporting is revealing the real truth about Mr. Teague’s serial behavior toward women. The more the story is reported, the more his victims will come forward.
By the way, apologizing is purely a leadership choice rather than a legal decision. True apologies are signs of integrity, honesty and compassion and provide closure for the victims. The Teague non-apology and the university’s decision to support rather than to clearly and powerfully condemn Teague’s behavior fails the integrity test, the compassion test and the victim-sensitivity test.
James Lukaszewski is a Twin Cities-based international expert in crisis management and leadership recovery, or departure following damaging incidents. The premise of his latest book, “Lukaszewski on Crisis Communication: What Your CEO Needs to Know About Reputation Risk and Crisis Management,” is successfully managing the victim dimension of crisis.