Peter A. Kerr: Leaders take the blame

Media Circus

By Stephen Michalowicz [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Rather than dodging responsibility in a crisis, Christian leaders should admit what went wrong, apologize and make things right, says a professor of communications at Asbury University.

In the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Adam is standing beside Eve when she eats the forbidden fruit. Yet when confronted by God, he points the finger at his mate.

While the story is about humanity’s relationship with God, it also reveals an all-too-human impulse. During a crisis, too many leaders want to shift the blame or remain silent rather than accept culpability.

Our job as Christian leaders is to do the right thing even when everything goes wrong. This has implications for our personal reputations as well as the reputations and long-term viability of our organizations.

Communications scholar William Benoit of Ohio University has developed what he calls “image repair theory” to help people shape their responses when accused of wrongdoing. He identifies five basic responses: denying, evading responsibility, reducing offensiveness, taking corrective action, and mortification (accepting responsibility).

Fortunately, there is evidence that the best solution during a crisis is to admit what went wrong, apologize and then accept the responsibility to make things right -- a response that falls largely in Benoit’s category of mortification.

The scene plays out in institutions across the globe: a crisis puts the organization under close scrutiny, squeezes the leadership into an awkward position and forces everyone to come to the office at 4 a.m. either bleary-eyed or on a caffeine high.

In my numerous experiences with this scenario, I inevitably find myself on the opposite side of the table from the lawyer, who is set on advising that we "say nothing" so that we are less legally culpable. My job as the public relations consultant is to explain that relationships are tricky things and that success in the court of public opinion may actually outweigh success in the court of law.

If you find yourself in that situation as a leader, your first step should be to verify the details and see exactly how culpable your organization is.

Do not look only for errors of commission but also for errors of omission -- not just what you did wrong but also what you failed to do right.

You and your organization may be blameless -- although you may have to make your case for this in order to change public perception.

But more often than not, your investigation will discover some problems. Your job then becomes to categorize what went wrong. It is vital to contain the crisis by clearly affixing the blame to specific issues. Otherwise, misinformation and speculation may compound the crisis and cause long-term damage to the leadership and the institution.

Common problems include clerical errors, misuse of confidential information, unauthorized procedures, inadequate supervision, inadequate quality control, poor judgment, inadequate standard operating procedures -- or any combination of the above.

Knowing the specific nature and extent of your culpability, you can now begin strategizing how to respond. While an apology may not always be the best solution, far too many leaders don’t even consider this simple act.

Say you’re sorry. Ask for forgiveness. Take steps to make things right.

The key to an effective apology is sincerity. Your words must accept responsibility and express your regret. Avoid excuses, which attempt to minimize guilt, as well as justifications, which suggest you are not really guilty at all.

A good example of what not to do is the recent on-air apology by news anchor Brian Williams. Instead of simply admitting that he lied -- or had an egregiously faulty memory -- he said he “made a mistake in recalling” events, went on to describe the “harrowing” nature of what he did experience, and took pains to emphasize his good intentions. This seemed like equivocation, and perhaps contributed to his six-month suspension.

Your emotional tone is also important. I knew a general who grieved with a family for their loss of an airman, and went the extra mile to tell the family personally and arrange for their care. However, by the time he was interviewed a week later the grief was no longer as fresh, and he smiled nervously rather than displaying the appropriate somber attitude.

Genuinely empathize with those who have experienced harm. If you feel their pain, it will be evident in your voice, and your apology will come across as more heartfelt and sincere.

After accepting responsibility and offering an apology, you should refocus attention on the future. You may want to offer a brief background and explanation of why things went wrong, but try to spend most of your time talking about what you are doing to rectify the situation, through acts of restitution or future problem prevention.

A genuine apology delivered with sincerity and evidenced by actions of remorse is a powerful response.

There is even evidence that apologies may result in fewer lawsuits. A 2005 study in the American Journal of Medicine suggests that malpractice lawsuits are correlated with doctors’ interpersonal skills more strongly than with their education level, technical skills or experience. People want to sue doctors they dislike but want to forgive those who admit fault and show a human face.

Abraham Lincoln is said to have observed, “The man who isn’t making mistakes isn’t making anything.” We will always make mistakes. And when we do, we need to move quickly to take the blame and make things right.

We cannot know what God would have done if Adam had accepted his culpability, but we can be certain that the people we seek to lead are suspicious of blame shifting. Often, taking the blame is the best way to preserve our institutional relationships and keep a good name.