Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Apologizing with Candor and Grace

As readers of my blog know, I've adopted many aspects of Japanese lifestyle in my household - food, music, and clothing.

Learning to apologize is also something I've learned from the Japanese. You'll find a great description in the Etiquette Guide to Japan by Boye De Mente.

A typical corporate apology in Japan is accompanied by a low bow, a sincere apology, and a possible resignation.

Atoning for a mistake in the US does not require the loss of your job (or anything more extreme).

As I mentioned in yesterday's blog about being a public figure, bad things can happen. You may or may not be able to control them.

When bad things happen, here is the approach I use:

1. Encourage openness and transparency in your staff i.e. do not shoot the messenger. By empowering every person to communicate the events objectively, you'll get to the root cause more rapidly.

2. Ask what can be done to improve the organization rather than blaming any one individual. If an error occurs in medication administration, ask what systems and processes should be improved rather than fire people.

3. Broadly communicate the issue in terms of the lessons learned and continuous quality improvement. The Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI) espouses Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA). Many IT projects are cutting edge and require incremental fine tuning. We try, we evaluate, we revise, and we try again. Unintended negative consequences during the learning process require full disclosure and an apology.

4. Do not hide information or sugar coat the events. It is far worse to deny the truth, then have to explain the facts later. In a world of instant communication via email, IM, blogs, and Twitter, assume that everyone knows the facts as soon as they happen.

5. Openly discuss the events, their cause, the immediate corrective action taken and the long term changes made to prevent the issue from happening again. Declare that you've made a mistake and that you apologize for it. This may be painful and could result in a great deal of short term publicity, but it's better than a long term investigation and future disclosure of management misdeeds. Imagine what would have happened to Bill Clinton if he said "I did have an affair with that woman and it was wrong. I have taken short term steps to prevent any such incidents from happening again and I will seek counseling from religious mentors and mental health experts to ensure my future behavior is exemplary". The issue would have disappeared in a few weeks.

In my many years of leading change and making mistakes along the way, I've found that great communication, openness, candor, and admission of mistakes, followed by a sincere apology results in healing the organization and bringing rapid closure to the issue.


karlub said...

I agree with this totally, and try to do it myself. Never thought of it as Japanese.

One caveat: In environments where most people have not bought into this approach, there is a real chance that dishonest operators seeking short-term benefit will use your honest approach against you.

Right is right, though, and wrong is wrong. That small percentage of people, I like to think, eventually get their just desserts in the end, usually for this precise reasons this system is better, in the long term, for everyone.

Kristen said...

You make a good point about the speed with which information moves through an organization. I would add that it is important to address exaggerated and wildly inaccurate information. Immediately following a critical error apology and truth telling are important, but it is also imperative to ensure that these points are communicated directly to as many stakeholders as possible. Flase rumors outpace the facts everytime.