With Mark McGwire apologizing for his steroid use recently, I thought it would be appropriate to address the subject of saying “I’m sorry.” Years ago I expressed my view that a major gap in the implosion of Andersen after Enron was that they had never actually apologized. So kudos to Mark McGwire for coming out and saying he actually did it, albeit at least four, and perhaps ten, years too late.
However, his explanation seems a little less than forthcoming, in that he characterizes his use as only designed to maintain his health. It reminds me of the explanation offered by his companion both in the 1998 record home run chase and at the Congressional hearings, Sammy Sosa. In 2003, when there were already whispers about steroid use, Sosa’s bat cracked unexpectedly in a game and was discovered by the umpires to be corked. Caught with irrefutable evidence about his cheating to gain an advantage, he referred to it as a “mental mistake.”
As I said in an article at the time, mental mistakes do not bring into question integrity, but competence. In baseball that might include throwing to the wrong base or forgetting how many outs there are. But the questions with Sosa’s actions, and McGwire’s, are all about integrity.
The apology for issues of integrity is entirely different from the apology for issues of competence. I will sometimes have students apologize to me for their performance on an exam. I respect these apologies, but for the most part they are unnecessary, unless they are used by students to motivate themselves to give a better effort in preparing for the next exam. However, if a student apologizes for an issue of integrity in my class, it matters how that apology is expressed.
I have on many occasions apologized to my wife for my incompetence—in home repairs, car repairs, investments, you name it. Acknowledging my failure is usually more than sufficient to satisfy my wife, and often she does not even require that. I am guessing that for Tiger Woods simply saying, “Hey, I’m sorry, I messed up” was not sufficient.
So what should an apology look like for issues of integrity? My first piece of advice is to avoid, if at all possible, progressive revelation. McGwire’s confession to Bob Costas appears to be the kind of halfhearted trickle of information that often leads to a feeding frenzy as other reporters build a case for there being more to the story. And there are always the Jose Cansecos of the world around to fill in the details.
Second, the reason for the eventual confession ought to be acknowledged. These confessions are virtually always delayed until after some event that triggers the need to say something. In McGwire’s case, he not only received fewer Hall of Fame votes this year than Tim Raines, but he has been hired as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, who are unlikely to be happy if he is a spring training sideshow. If these are not the reasons, why did he wait until now to apologize? These apologies ought to be prefaced with a simple acknowledgement that the time was right for specific reasons.
Third, there ought to be visible evidence of a changed heart. By this, I am not referring to the crocodile tears that seem prevalent when revelations are made. But when people get the sense that the confessor would do it all over again, given the chance, there is no hope of repairing a reputation. Even Pete Rose’s strongest supporters for entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame would be unwilling to bet their fortunes that, given the same set of circumstances, he would avoid the kinds of gambling he engaged in.
Fourth, there can be no residual attacks on those who have raised the issues. This has to be especially hard for people like McGwire, who is faced with continuing assertions that he was injected with steroids by Jose Canseco, one of the most unlikable truth-tellers in modern sports history. Of course, this attacking behavior is often part of the legal defense team’s strategy if there are still issues being addressed in court. But when you are apologizing for integrity failures, no one wants to hear you blame others.
And, as hard as it is, embrace the consequences of your action in a way that will lessen the chance that you make that choice again. My son’s first hero, when he was a five-year-old baseball player on the Rookie Cardinals, was “Mark-uh McGwire.” We have a picture together in our uniform shirts taken from the back, like the old Maris and Mantle pictures, and he wears that number 25 so proudly.
Today, he only winces when I mention the name McGwire. Mark McGwire will never see that, just as CEOs like Ken Lay and Dennis Kozlowski are often insulated from the betrayal of trust felt by investors and employees. But coming face-to-face with the consequences of a trust betrayal is often the most powerful deterrent to repeating the behavior.
Life is always better if you can avoid integrity failures, but it is relatively certain that most of us, from time to time, are going to fall short and need to say, “I’m sorry.” Being up front about what we have done and communicating a genuine rejection of the values that led us to fail are important. Leave the opinions about others’ culpability to others. And, as painful as it is, face up to the impact. It is the shortest route to refining character.
Agreed that apologies for failures of competence are very different from apologies due to failures of integrity. In both cases, we say I am sorry but the meaning of sorry is very different in both cases. Maybe the problem is that we confuse the two. What works with a failure of competence, “I am sorry, I let you down” is not adequate with failures of integrity.
For me, failures of integrity should (but rarely do) begin with “I was wrong and here is why.” Agree with you that an apology is not a place to blame anyone even if there is another party involved that has wronged us.
I was told when in an accident in another country I lived in to never say you were sorry since that implied an admission of wrongdoing.
It seems an expression of a desire to not repeat the act helps in an apology. Of course there needs to be a sincerity in both of those (admission of wrong and desire to not repeat the wrong) and not all of us are so good at communicating with an appropriate emotional response our apologies. Maybe some of us need an agent like McGuire had for that! Finally, another element to an apology that is often lacking is the communication of an awareness of how we have wounded the other person by our integrity failure. To hear that it does mean we may need to let the other person vent and that is not easy–at least not for me!
I appreciate your comment, David. I understand that cultural differences like the accident situation you describe will limit a person’s ability to do what I’ve suggested. The same is true of the legal constraints in admitting something in the U.S. You are on point about the importance of communicating both the desire not to repeat the act and an awareness of how the other person is hurt when you are apologizing. I would say, in general, that apologizing is something we do reasonably often, but not well. I certainly admit to that being true for me as well.
I totally agree with you that being “sorry” for lack of competence or integrity are on two different levels. Apologizing regarding his integrity really comes down to the sincerity of it. Why did it take him this many years afterward to finally come out and admit it? He stated he did it for “health purposes” and that his ability to hit home runs was a “given gift”, which sounds to me like his purpose for the use of steroids wasn’t to increase his performance in baseball. He even lied a few years back during a congressional testimony. At least I can respect that he has come out and admit it.
I agree that apologies for failures in competence and integrity are very different. Failure in integrity require all four of those components to be true. I believe that Mark McGwire’s lack of integrity was not only displayed in his use of steroids (disgracing the game) and then lying about it, but also in his insincere apology. I would almost rather him not apologize at all because if it is not sincere then it isn’t worth anything. He only apologized to get into the Hall Of Fame, had he been voted in I believe that he never would have acknowledged his steroid use. As much as I dislike Jose Canseco, at least he told the truth, albeit for selfish reasons (to sell his book). Even Barry Bonds, whom I strongly distrust and dislike, has the decency to not give an insincere apology. Everybody makes mistakes and even mistakes of integrity, nobody is perfect; but if you never truly regret your mistakes and sincerely own up to them, then you are not making progress in bettering your character and learning from mistakes.
I agree that apologizing for issues of integrity is more than simply saying “I’m sorry.” After reading this blog, I was able to relate apologizing for issues of integrity to the act of confession. While growing up, my family, friends, and church offered the same advice that is mentioned in this blog. First of all, I was taught that before confessing, one must sincerely regret the sinful act. If you do not sincerely feel sorry for what you’ve done, then there is no need to apologize for it. It would be hypocritical to do so. Next, one must be willing to repent after confessing, which is the same as “visible evidence of changed heart”. Finally, avoiding progressive revelation is important. I think it is courageous to walk into a confessional and admit that you’re wrong. I think it is even more courageous and admirable to fully disclose your sins at once.
Shaub’s advice for how to give an apology for an integrity issue has merit. Many people try to say that they came forth because their conscience compelled them to or for another similar reason. A lot of times this isn’t actually the case. If you didn’t come forth because you genuinely wanted to, you’ll probably commit the act again. There would also be a chance people would find out your motives for coming forward and rake you across the coals for it. For people like McGwire who are in the spotlight, this can make or break you even more so than the initial act. Many people in the spotlight try to get back in the public’s good graces by doing community service or some kind of good deed, but this won’t help you if you start to have similar problems to the act you committed before. While some don’t recover their good publicity after the first act, you definitely won’t recover it if you display a bad attitude about it or regress to your previous actions. People will always be looking for you to mess up again, so in my personal opinion, it would be better for you to give a sincere apology with conviction than for you to fake it. Fake apologies won’t make the situation any better.
After reading all of the previous comments, I would first like to say that I agree with the general consensus that apologies are very different depending on the situation. However, what really jumped out to me was actually Dr. Shaub’s second comment about apologies being something we do “reasonably often, but not well”. I believe this is true, yet it makes me very upset to think about our society in this way, mostly because I believe a person with a strong ability and willingness to apologize is one of the best indicators of strong integrity. As we all know, EVERYBODY makes mistakes. Some are minor like “Oh, I forgot to take the trash out”, while others like “I fudged the numbers to make an extra buck (ENRON!)” can change millions of lives. Being able to recognize both the little and big mistakes and then making a sincere effort to correct them sounds like such an easy task, but I feel like its something that I see less and less of each day. I feel like there is more and more of a mentality going around that apologies show weakness and that you are admitting a wrongdoing. Well guess what, sometimes admitting a wrongdoing is exactly the RIGHT thing to do. What a person does after they make a mistake tells me infinitely more about their character than the mistake itself.
In my opinion, apologizing for something long after the storm has blown over significantly dilutes the value of the apology. As in Mark McGuire’s case, I don’t really follow baseball, but I gather that it is a huge issue to be caught using steroids or any other illegal means to gain an edge. Once the truth came out, if McGuire had apologized shortly thereafter, he might not have lost as many adoring fans as he did. Waiting however many years (ten?) to apologize to the public not only brings back to the surface the sour subject of steroid use within the MLB, but also reminds the public of what he did, and his apology isn’t taken at the same face value as it would have been ten years prior. Its better to come out with the whole truth all at one time, own up to it, let the media frenzy begin, and end, and then move on with your life; rather than drag on the show and let people talk about it for months and years. Rather than be known for his amazing hitting skills and record home-runs, McGuire will forever be known as the guy who took steroids. Owning up for your mistakes can (somewhat) save your reputation, and its better to be known for what you did right than what you did wrong.
I completely agree wth you and especially Cara. Not even if you give a perfect apology according to those three last pieces of advice, waiting ten years (or however long) until you are DISCOVERED irreparably damages the apology (and its chances for acceptance). We will never know if Tiger Woods, Mark McGuire, Ken Lay, or Romeo Mike are ever truly sorry for their actions. Personally, I think this makes an apology pretty hard to swallow.
I would also suggest that for an apology (for an integrity issue) to be truly effective, it cannot insinuate that contributing factors, extenuating circumstances, or preceding rationalizations should bare any of the blame… even if they should. Little else matters than the breach in trust, and focusing on these other issues lessens the apology from an “I’m sorry I did this” to “I’m sorry this happened”. In this case, it’s even more questionable whether one actually means the apology at all.
It seems to me that whenever a public figure apoligizes, they do not really seem sorry for their actions as much as they seem to be sorry that they got caught. In my opinion, most public apoligies are perfectly staged and timed in order give the person the best opportunity to try to save face with the public. I feel that if a person was truly sorry for their actions, they would apoligize when the actions occured, not years later when they finally get caught.
Also, I don’t think public apoligies should be issued when a person’s offense is internal to his family. The big example would be infidelity issues. While I do understand the breach of public trust issues, the person’s main offense was to their spouse and family and these are the people they should apoligize to. I don’t think it’s right for people like Edwards, Spitzer, Craig, Ensign ect to go in front of the camera, divulge all of the details of their affairs and apoligize for them while making their wives stand next to them the whole time. It just seems to me like they are trying to salvage their reputation no matter how much public humiliation their spouse must endure.
I agree with Brian. Most public figures have these press conferences to cover their butt, and not to ruin their persona. Despite the fact that if McGwire were to take the advice for apologizing that Dr. Shaub has given, I don’t believe that I would still take it as a sincere apology.
Watching my three year old niece I have seen my brother and sister-in-law teach her to say sorry for her wrong actions. Although it may not be completely sincere because she is so young and she may not realize her wrong doings, at least at young age she is being taught right from wrong and that saying “I’m sorry” is the right thing to do. Maybe what it takes is teaching from a young age how to admit to doing wrong and not to hide it, like McGwire did.
I felt this blog was very useful and applicable in day to day life. First comment I wanted to make was on your first point of avoiding slow progression. I could not agree with this more. In my own personal life whenever I try to slowly reveal the truth , or purposefully leave stuff out it seems to always come back and bite me. It is very similar to sipping off a band-aid…make it quick and get it over with. In Ken Lay’s situation I wonder if he had been upfront and honest when everything first started to unravel if investors, employees, etc. would have been more willing to trust him instead of thinking he was “smoking crack”. The next point I wanted to comment on was the one about coming face to face with those you betrayed is the strongest deterrent. This reminded me of when my parents would get upset with me, but instead of being mad they would be “disappointed”. Those words were like torture to me. I could take my mom getting mad, yelling, or grounding me, but it was when she said that word “I’m just disappointed” that I would just crumble. And, in most cases when she would said that I rarely repeated those actions.
I think that admitting our failures and facing the possibility of people thinking negative of us is one of the hardest things for us to do. Many of us blame our failures on others or rationalize it. This seems like it is the easier way out, especially if no one else knows of your mistake. This way you come out looking like a good guy and no one knows what you did.
I think it takes a person with real character and integrity to admit what they did was wrong and sincerely apologize for their mistake. Without taking this step it’s hard to not repeat that same behavior over again. By admitting what you did was wrong you can move on and try to change and grow into the person that you’d like to become.
As an avid baseball fan, I really enjoyed this blog. Not because it mentioned some of my all time favorite players, but because it addressed a much more serious subject. Saying sorry can be certainly one of the hardest things for anyone to do. Personally, I know that my selfish pride can often get in the way of admitting my mistakes. However, I have learned that when I do admit I was wrong, I am able to grow on a much higher level. As mentioned in the blog, saying your sorry is only the first step. Actually acting on your apology can be just as difficult as facing your failures. For me, one of the easiest ways of fixing my mistakes is to find friends who will help me overcome my struggles. My roommates are awesome example of what true accountability looks like. I know that when I tell them sorry for something I have done, they will try just as hard as I will to fix my problem. As accountants, I know that I will make mistakes when working on an audit. That is why it is so important for me to work on a team that will not only accept my apology, but will also help me find a solution.
First of all Dr. Shaub, as an avid sports fan, can I just say that I love that several of your blogs relate to sports?
Before I read this post, I had never considered the fact that apologies for competence and integrity issues are substantially different. To me, an apology was an apology that you either meant or just stated to take some of the weight off of your shoulders. Now that I look at it, I completely agree with your point. However, I can’t honestly say I always follow these steps. While I believe several people would say apologizing for integrity issues is the harder to confront of the two, I would have to say that the harder for me is in apologizing for competency errors. I have a very strong-willed personality, and I’ve found it’s hard for me to admit my mistakes to others and move on, especially when it deals with my competence. I often find myself justifying what I did to others until I believe my action was actually the correct way, and sometimes I come across so confident that the other party will actually be the one to apologize for doubting me.
While issues of integrity are much deeper, I find that it’s easier to apologize for them. However, I’m only referring to the apology itself. I have made several mistakes in life that I probably never said I’m sorry for when I should have, and I probably will have several more to come. However, for those times that I did apologize when my integrity was damaged, I can honestly say that my apologizies were sincere and meant to be taken as a sign that those actions would not be repeated. No one wants to admit their wrongdoings, especially when they make you seem less honorable, so when people build up the courage to confront these situations upfront, I honestly believe they are authentic.
The thing that stood out the most to me was your third point, there needs to be visible evidence of a changed heart. I think this is the most common element to be absent from an apology. It is easy to throw out the words “I’m Sorry,” but I think alot of times people are not so much sorry for the way they acted, they are just sorry for the consequences. I think a true apology is an understanding of not only how others were hurt, but the fundamental reasons what they did was wrong.
I completely agree that apologies of competence are completely different than apologies of integrity. Too often in my own life I have tried to apologize for something using circumstances as an excuse for why I did something. In reality, if you are apologizing with integrity, it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are because you realize what you did was wrong and you have a “changed heart.” I think that if Enron or Andersen would have owned up to their mistakes, and if Ken Lay or Jeff Skilling would have had a heartfelt apology because they knew it was wrong, the outcome might have been different for the people that lost everything. There is nothing worse than being lied to and having the person deny that they did anything wrong. For an apology to be truly effective it needs to come from the heart; it needs to be something done voluntarily as opposed to something forced or triggered.
I believe saying sorry for a failure of integrity is one of the hardest things to do. Nobody wants to admit they have slipped up and placed something so high in value, your integrity, in jeopardy. However, I also think its so important to take this risk and admit to our mistakes. I believe if McGwire would of come out from the beginning with a sincere apology, not near as many people would have a negative view of him. Every individual knows its only human to make mistakes, but its hard to forgive someone that can own up to their own actions.
I believe the part about no one wanting to her you blame others is very important, not only cause its so true but because its also so easy to fall victim of. It’s so much easier to put the blame on others, but for a true apology, we have to be willing to accept that we have made a mistake; a mistake that we choose to make.
I like to think that it isn’t the mistakes that make the individual, but how the individual handles the mistakes afterward. I think this second part is just as important, if not more.
I think that while all these guidelines for an apology are applicable, there is one key consideration missing. Who the apology is directed act. I believe, ultimately an apology is not a vehicle for making yourself feel better, or righting wrongs but something we do FOR the people we have wronged. To give a good apology we must be considerate of our audience. Within the limits of the truth and your true intentions you should consider who it is you are apologizing to and what they could hear from you that could help them heal.
A selfish act followed by a selfish apology only serves to pour salt in the wound.
Many times when a public figure apologizes for what they’ve done I find myself wondering if they are apologizing because they are truly sorry or because their media relations person told them that they needed to. I think one of the saddest things is how ingrained people become with athletes and actors. They follow every second of a famous person’s life and when that person does something wrong, the fan sees it as a personal offense. I understand that these people are public figures and people do look up to them as role models, but in the end, the only person they are really accountable to are themselves and their spouses in cases of infidelity. The steroid users, the cheaters, and the liars are going to have to live with what they’ve done for the rest of their lives. So, punish them, fine them, take away their records, or keep them out of the hall of fame, but what I wouldn really like to see is a group of athletes that play their sports with a sense of honor and pride that keeps them from messing up in the first place. Until that happens, the scandals are just going to be a part of the sport.
I agree that apologizing for a failure in competence and apologizing for a failure in intergrity are two very different things. Apologizing for a failure in competence implies that the intention behind your actions were pure. Simply stated, you were trying to do the right thing, make the right decision, etc., but simply failed in doing so. In my opinion, apologizing for a failure in integrity is much more difficult because it requires a certain amount of humility in being able to admit that you knew that what you were doing was wrong, but chose to do it anyway. Now, all of this applies assuming that the person apologizing is sincere. I, like AKFreeman, sometimes doubt the sincerity of public figures when they are apologizing for wrongdoings. It is usually in their best interest for the public to view them in a good light, and often that is achieved through a public apology which may or may not have been written by an employee of the person apologizing.
I believe an example of an effect apology would be Andy Pettite’s apology. When his name was brought up in the Mitchell investigation, he did not deny using performance enhancing drugs. He admitted that he did use them and gave his reasoning, but I did not feel like he was giving an excuse. He said that there are no excuses and that he used poor judgement.
On the other hand, McGwire repetitively lied about using steroids and then decided to apologize many years later. So, I would say timing is crucial to an effective apology of integrity. I know it is hard to admit that you have made a mistake and acted unethically, but the sooner the better.
Saying you are sorry can be the hardest thing to do. Admitting to someone that you had a lapse of judgement and lied is one of the hardest things I have ever done. It is much easier to continue to lie, but it is never too late to return to your moral compass. People might treat you badly for lying, but it is better to admit that you did than live a life of lies always trying to cover something up.
I am very big on trust, I do not trust people very easily; therefore, if someone is apologizing to me, saying “I’m sorry” normally doesn’t cut it. I really liked your list of what an apology for integrity should look like, I completely agree, especially with number 3 (there ought to be evidence of a changed heart). If I want to trust in someone again and they do not make an effort to show me that they can be loyal, then it is ten times harder for me to let them back in.
I agree most with what you said about actually being sorry. I know that when I’m truly sorry for something I’ve done, I generally feel conviction to right my wrong. What I realized when reading this blog is just how hard it can be to say sorry when you really mean it. I sometimes avoid the confrontation because of embarrassment and fear of the consequences but generally, I always feel a release when I get it over with.
It is always interesting to me that some people believe that they can get away with anything because of who they are. Then if they get caught they deny it or just say “Oops! Sorry!” And they think that this enough to fix the situation. Take for instance Tiger Woods. He thought he could get away with anything, and sadly for a while he did. But karma will eventually catch up with you as it did with Tiger. He gambled his golf career for the satisfaction of sleeping with pretty much every woman he met. And when he said sorry, thankfully his wife would not accept it. In that instance, there is no amount of “I’m sorrys” to fix the situation.
I feel that the baseball players who used steroids to get ahead are kind of making the same gamble as Tiger did. I remember when Roger Clemens was accused of using steroids and how disappointing it was to watch him answer questions posed to him and see the guilt written across his face. He went from being one of my favorite pitchers to one of my least favorite players. So needless to say I was happy he went to the Yankees. The Astros don’t need those kinds of people representing them.
I feel that when it comes to saying “I’m sorry” due to failures in integrity, that sometimes it’s not enough. And sometimes there is nothing that can be said to make the situation better or make it so that the person in the wrong can be forgiven. There are some unforgivable failures in integrity.
My issue with apologizes due to failures in integrity is the reason behind the apology. My older brother and I use to really have at each other. At first it seemed to all be brotherly and sisterly love, but eventually, someone’s feelings were hurt (usually mine… I am the girl) and we would run to mom to fix the problem. At that point we were forced to say sorry to one another, but as soon as she would leave the room we would start at it again. That is where the difference is. Saying sorry because someone told you to is different than taking the time to see the issue for yourself and apologizing because you understand that what you did was wrong.
We see this with public figures all the time. A politician apologizes because his career will fail if he doesn’t. A visible sports player makes a public apology because his coach tell him he has no other option. These apologies are not backed by guilt or understanding of the situation, they are given for only selfish reasons. Saying “I’m sorry” is definitely the first step in any situation where a mistake was made, but if that apology is not real, then it is pointless to even make in my eyes.