Apologies And Accountability

Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman writes about apologies and accountability. In American business circles, she says, most apologies come with little sense of shame or responsibility. That's less true in other countries.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

Leaders have been incompetent, corrupt, even downright evil for centuries. The only difference now is we the public have a much easier time finding out about it. That's a thesis put forward by Harvard University's Barbara Kellerman in a recent piece called "Leadership Malpractice." She joins us now to talk about the role apologies play when it comes to accountability. Welcome to the program.

Dr. BARBARA KELLERMAN (Public Leadership, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University): Thank you.

COHEN: You write that in the first nine months of this year, more than 1100 CEOs either quit or were let go due to poor performance. But you said they weren't really held accountable. Why not?

Dr. KELLERMAN: Well, it's interesting. Leaders are, in fact, more vulnerable. But for some reason - and this is particularly in evidence during the financial crisis - while we're very push - very quick to push them out, very quick to find fault, we don't necessarily punish them any more than that. In other words, once they've been pushed out, we more or less leave them alone. I think it's going to take awhile for us to figure out how to harness our collective energies so that leaders, like everyone else, have to pay for their crimes.

COHEN: In these times, people are losing their homes, their jobs; the economy is in very poor shape; it seems like a lot of folks are looking for a place to put the blame. And do apologies help in that regard?

Dr. KELLERMAN: They would if they could, if they were offered. It's been startling to me how, even though we are in this apology culture, even though more leaders have apologized in recent years than ever before, in this particular situation, this financial crisis, apologies have been few and far between. General Motors placed an ad in an automotive magazine, admitting some mistakes. They finally did this only recently, but only after a long time. But individuals have been very reluctant to assume responsibility. In my view, the reason they're getting away with it is because there are so many who were culpable; they're people in the private sector, in the public sector, in the executive branch, in the legislative branch. In the other words, there are so many players here who bear some level of responsibility for what happened that no single individual or very few single individuals have so far felt any real need to step up to the plate and say I'm sorry; I apologize for my role in what happened.

COHEN: What effect do apologies have if they are, in fact, made? If a CEO steps up and says I was wrong, I made a mistake, does that bear any influence on how the public perceives that leader or that institution?

Dr. KELLERMAN: Well, as your question implies, there are certainly occasions when apologies, on behalf of leaders, either on behalf of themselves or their institutions, can make a really big difference. When they make a difference and how they make a difference depends very much on the individual situation. For example, leaders can't wait very long to apologize. Unless they do so reasonably quickly after the infraction is detected, it's not likely to do very much good. Moreover, in a situation - just to talk about the larger situation in which we find ourselves, the recent economic or financial crisis - in a situation like this, when leaders are concerned about being legally vulnerable and when they can point to so many other players who have also played a part in the wrongdoing, malfeasance or simple incompetence, they are less likely to apologize, even when it might stand to their advantage.

COHEN: You mentioned the fear of legal repercussions. Does that also wind up shaping the nature of these apologies? Are they maybe not quite as heartfelt because accepting too much culpability could get them in trouble?

Dr. KELLERMAN: Well, apologies are funny things, and we know this even from our own personal lives. They do have to be rather quick; they do have to be heartfelt; they do have to acknowledge the wrongdoing; and they do have to promise some kind of amends. Now, unless the leader feels able to volunteer or give or offer all these various things, it is arguably the case that he or she is better off not apologizing at all. And I do think that in this litigious society, leaders are nervous about admitting responsibility; although there is some research to suggest that when they are quick to admit responsibility, they, in fact, are less vulnerable to punishment and retribution than they might be otherwise.

COHEN: You study this sort of thing for a living, and I'm curious how you feel the United States compares with other countries when it comes to accepting responsibility, making apologies.

Dr. KELLERMAN: Well, first of all, the apology culture is rather a new phenomenon, and I actually think of it as being part of a time - this is late 20th and early 21st century - in which people are much more prone to let it all hang out. It's the Oprahization(ph), if you will, of American politics and culture, where we admit our mistakes; we're less embarrassed than we used to be tout them. So, even in the United States, it's rather a recent phenomenon. There are other cultures, particularly in Asia, where people might be quicker to apologize and assume responsibility. So, yes, there are some cultural differences, although, of course, as the world shrinks, so do these differences.

COHEN: Barbara Kellerman is a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Thank you, Barbara.

Dr. KELLERMAN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "Forgive Me")

Ms. LEONA LEWIS: (Singing) Man, I really hope, Hope you will forgive me. Hope you will forgive me. Hope you will forgive me...

COHEN: Stay with us on Day to Day from NPR News.

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