Thursday, October 21, 2010

When leaders should say 'sorry'

Oct 21, 2010

A heartfelt, well-timed apology goes a long way towards healing rifts

By Chua Mui Hoong

A SERIES of heartfelt apologies last week has gone some way towards mending the hurts that emerged after a mistake by coach and team manager Ang Peng Siong disqualified Singapore's swimming team at the recent Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

Mr Ang had cut it fine in Delhi's traffic and turned up too late to register the 4x200m freestyle relay team for the final. He apologised to the team and their parents immediately after the incident.

Singapore Swimming Association (SSA) president Jeffrey Leow, however, later described the mistake as 'trivial', saying the team was not expected to win a medal anyway.

This remark provoked much unhappiness. The SSA sought a meeting with Mr Ang, the swimmers and their parents. At the end of it, SSA issued a formal apology.

Mr Leow himself said: 'I regret that my poor choice of words... has caused offence and compounded our mistake. I am truly sorry.' Mr Ang also apologised again for his mistake.
One father said 'the sincere apologies from them are heartening to hear'. One swimmer said the mistake was hard to accept, 'but people make mistakes'.

It appears that the string of 'sorrys' has removed the sting from the incident, although the affair is by no means over as the SSA is investigating the incident so as to learn from the fiasco.
In public life, a well-meant, well-timed 'sorry' goes a long way towards healing rifts and helping people move on.

When something goes wrong, the worst possible response from leaders is to justify themselves or explain away the problem. Witness the beh song (Hokkien for disgruntled) feeling at Mr Leow's initial comments.

In Singapore, there is a perception that not many public leaders will apologise readily when things go wrong. 'Sorry', some say, seems to be the hardest word for People's Action Party (PAP) ministers to say.

Netizens in Singapore, especially, had this impression in the wake of floods that damaged property and inconvenienced many recently. The absence of an apology, even for a natural disaster that could not have been avoided, was interpreted as a sign of the Government's inability to climb down from its 'government-knows-best' attitude. Worse, it was interpreted as a sign of the Government not being accountable to the public.

In fact, a look back shows that PAP ministers do say 'sorry'.

Known for his candour, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has apologised for remarks he made on immigration in Australia (1988), the crime situation in Johor (1997), and the Chinese in Malaysia (2006).

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong too has had occasion to apologise, to Singaporeans. He apologised for using the phrase 'no-brainer' to a teacher, for Singaporeans, unfamiliar with the American term meaning 'it's obvious', thought he was calling her names. In 2006, he apologised for saying 'fix' the opposition.

A more recent example from the PAP ranks is Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Vivian Balakrishnan, who faced flak over hiccups in the organisation of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG).

He apologised last month when certificates of appreciation were sent out to volunteers with the wrong signatures. In Parliament, quizzed on the YOG busting its budget, he admitted the ministry got the initial estimates wrong.

He accepted ministerial responsibility for the mistakes made by those he had oversight over and apologised for them. I, for one, thought the better of him for stepping up simply and plainly. Words alone are not enough, of course, but acknowledging mistakes (by the individual or institution) is an important first step in change.

When is an apology called for? A 2006 article by Harvard University leadership professor Barbara Kellerman parses the art of the apology. In When Should A Leader Apologise, she writes that a public apology can be considered if it serves one of these purposes: individual, institutional, intergroup, or moral.

The apologies of Singaporean leaders served these purposes. As leaders of government, they understood that the mistakes could embarrass the institution, and that an apology would limit the damage. MM Lee's apologies to foreign countries also served an intergroup purpose: soothing hurt feelings in the offended country, mending bilateral relations and safeguarding Singapore's larger national interest.

Psychologists Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas say in The Five Languages Of Apology that an apology should admit a mistake (take responsibility), express regret, make amends (restitution), promise change (repentance) and request forgiveness.

The most crucial part of an apology is admitting wrongdoing. But the leader is not always the best person to do that, if he was not personally at fault, argues Prof Kellerman. For example, it makes no sense for a government leader to apologise for a natural disaster or acts of God - for example, floods. An apology may be called for if the response to the disaster was poor, exacerbating injury or death, but that is another matter.

Instead, a leader should apologise if there is a critical issue at stake, and if he or she is the only person who can set it right. When DBS Bank's ATM and banking services broke down for seven hours in July, DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta thought the scale of the disruption warranted a personal response. He took personal and institutional responsibility for the mistake, and promised change. Three months later, the incident is hardly talked about.

As Prof Kellerman wrote, apologies serve a larger social purpose. 'When leaders apologise publicly, whether to or on behalf of their followers, they are engaging in... a 'secular rite of expiation' which cannot be understood merely in terms of expediency. The attempt to come clean is more than an explanation and more than an admission: It is an exchange in which leaders and their listeners engage in order to move on. It is in turn this transition, from the past to the future, that enables the course correction that mistakes and wrongdoing require.'

'Rite of expiation'. There is a Hokkien way of saying the same thing. A 'sorry' helps remove that beh song feeling, allowing the aggrieved to say: 'Swarh la!' - forget it, let's move on.

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