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A Lesson in Apology-ology

Deflection doesn't work. Start with an honest admission of what you did wrong.

A Lesson in Apology-ology

Deflection doesn't work. Start with an honest admission of what you did wrong.

He said “I’m sorry,” but not for what he actually did wrong.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sometimes when the mighty publicly apologize, they signal less “heartfelt contrition” and more “Can we stop talking about this now please?” Last month, no number of repetitions of the words “I’m sorry” could change the sense that Mark Zuckerberg was telling us a variation on the story that the dog ate his homework. And just this week, powerful biologist Eric Lander apologized, weakly, for praising the famously racist James Watson.

So far it’s not clear whether Lander, who directs the MIT-Harvard collaborative lab known as the Broad Institute, is contrite because he now realizes it was wrong, or regretful because he’s tainted his career with a stench of racism, and it can’t be sterilized away with any of the Broad’s autoclaves or other fancy equipment.

A flash of insight into the problem with these apologies came out of a conversation I had on a related topic with an expert on research integrity and laboratory leadership, C.K. Gunsalus. She founded and directs the National Center for Professional and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois. We were talking about toxic work environments, and she mentioned that a good leader knows the right way to apologize.

The keys to a good apology, she said, are to explain exactly what you’re sorry for, offer some explanation for why you did it, and recount what you’ve learned. She likes to summarize it as the four Rs: Remorse, Responsibility, Rehabilitation (here’s what I learned, here’s how I’m going to do better), and Recompense (how I’ll try to make it better/repair the damage I caused).

This led right into a discussion of the Lander apology.

The behavior for which Lander apologized happened Saturday, at a meeting on “The Biology of Genomes” at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. There, he gave laudatory toast to James Watson, who had been director of the lab. Watson is famous for being the co-discoverer, along with Francis Crick, of the chemical structure of DNA. He later became infamous for spouting discredited racist theories, and was forced out of his position at Cold Spring Harbor in 2007. Watson’s statements about race were not mere gaffes, or acts of political incorrectness. They were cruel, blatantly racist, and scientifically incorrect.

Lander nevertheless praised Watson in a toast, adding the disclaimer that the man was “flawed.” This did not go over well with some of his fellow biologists. A detailed story in the medical website STAT News includes some of the disapproving tweets following the toast, as well as the Lander’s first attempt at an apology:

“I was conflicted about whether to do it,” Lander said in his email, which he sent after Twitter exploded with criticism of him the day before. “I ultimately agreed to accommodate the request. But it was the wrong decision.”

STAT reported that Lander also said in the email that he knew about Watson’s racism and rejects it. To be fair, Lander may be in the process of producing a more complete apology. He was accommodating STAT’s request for a quick response. But for the purpose of apology analysis, we’ll look at what he’s said so far.

So far it’s unclear why Lander would have toasted Watson, if he is in fact so opposed to racism and knew about Watson’s history. He indicated he was asked to do it, but Lander is one of the most powerful scientists in the world, controlling hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money, so it’s not clear why he couldn’t just tell the person to forget it. And so far, he hasn’t explained what he learned from the incident — there’s no rehabilitation or recompense.

Dr. Gunsalus’s anatomy of an effective apology also helps explain why Mark Zuckerberg’s apology last month for the Cambridge Analytica scandal rang so hollow. In a brilliant analysis published in The Conversation, linguistics professor Annabelle Lukin shows how the Facebook founder used a trick called middle voice to deflect blame here: “I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here.”

Zuckerberg reminds us that he’s a big, powerful person, and yet he uses a passive construction — “what happens” — to describe the way his company let people down. That’s what gave me that picture of the dog eating his homework. Lukin invites readers to ponder what would have happened had Zuckerberg been more explicit about “what happens.” What if instead, he said this: “I’m responsible because I didn’t disclose the company’s complicity in the theft of people’s private data.” 

Another good critique in Tablet took issue with Zuckerberg’s resort to the cliché that the offenses are “not who we are.” If you did it, why isn’t it who you are? What the company does reveals what the company is.

Some of the same flaws show up in the short and sour apology emanating from the Twitter account of radio personality Laura Ingraham. She apologized for mocking school shooting survivor and teenage gun-control activist David Hogg. But if there was an award for unsatisfying, ineffective apologies, it might have to go to former Boston public broadcasting host Tom Ashbrook, who was fired after an investigation found him guilty of creating an abusive work environment.

His apology, or what might pass for one, was printed in the Boston Globe. His request for redemption was aimed at listeners rather than the victims — the employees who suffered under his reign, including those who quit because it was so toxic. To summarize, he’s sorry that his behavior led us New Englanders to be deprived of his talent. It might have made some sense had the employees who complained committed some sort of journalistic fraud that was harming the community. But he offers no explanation for his alleged bullying, or any evidence that it was in the service of his show’s quality.

Hundreds of Globe commenters recognized that this lacked elements of an effective apology. Here’s one that hits exactly the right points:

I believe in redemption, Tom. Will you share with us what you have learned as the source of your behavior that others felt was so reprehensible? What new skills have you learned that will make you aware of when you are about the cross that line again, since it is your responsibility, and not others, to manage your behavior? What you have shared in this column doesn't convince me yet that you know why you did what you did, and thus I fear that risk remains. Listening and looking inward usually isn't quite enough.

Well said! This kind of reflection takes more time and effort than just saying “sorry” or “That’s not who I am.” It’s too easy to apologize for an unspecified “what happens.” Going through remorse, responsibility, rehabilitation and recompense may indeed be the first step on the only road that leads to redemption.

    This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Faye Flam at

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    Philip Gray at

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