Counselor Commentary: The Art Of An Apology

The Words "I'm Sorry" Do Wonders

Dave VagnoniWe’ve all had our failures at work, but they probably don’t compare to Gary Szatkowski’s colossal mess-up this week. Szatkowski, the lead forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Mt. Holly, NJ, issued an aggressive snowfall map ahead of the Blizzard of 2015. His forecast called for one to two feet of snow from the Philadelphia western suburbs to the New Jersey shore. Now famously instead, the storm tracked farther east, burying New England, but leaving the mid-Atlantic states mostly unscathed.

After the storm passed, Szatkowski took to Twitter to apologize. “My deepest apologies to many key decision makers and so many members of the general public,” he wrote. “You made a lot of tough decisions expecting us to get it right, and we didn’t. Once again, I’m sorry.”

Yes, yes, these tweets are all very touching, but Szatkowski’s forecast wasn’t just wrong – it was really, really wrong. Working parents had to take vacation days because schools preemptively closed, businesses lost customers as states of emergency shutdown cities, and about 7,000 flights were cancelled, leaving people stranded at airports across the country. Let’s not pretend this was a minor inconvenience.

Yet, curiously, the snap social media reaction to Szatkowski’s mea culpa wasn’t anger or ridicule, but appreciation. (Go ahead, check out his Tuesday Twitter feed). Even national reporters went easy on Szatkowski, acknowledging the storm was challenging to predict. It’s enough to make you realize that Szatkowski was on to something.

Apparently, in weather forecasting, just like in business, the words “I’m sorry” do wonders in diffusing a tense situation. Of course, there is an art to apologizing that makes some attempts more effective than others. Business author Bruna Martinuzzi has put together a simple five-step formula: First, say you are sorry; then, state what you did wrong; next, acknowledge how the receiving party must be feeling; fourth, express your sincere regret; and finally, promise not to repeat the behavior.

Any of us can easily follow this advice, whether we’re dealing with a client upset with an order error, a business partner who feels he was mistreated, or a subordinate employee who was embarrassed in front of others. Even months or years after a misstep, a heartfelt apology can be a powerful way to repair hurt feelings.

What stops us from apologizing? Psychologists say it’s largely pride – either that or just being too insulated to see how we affect others. The best leaders, though, stand-up people who are authentic and real, instead of self-serving and fake. If you’re the former, people will respect you; if you’re the latter, people will resent you. Which takes us back to our friendly, apologetic New Jersey forecaster, who somehow this week dodged not one storm, but two. Come to think of it, if he gets the next forecast wrong, he could always get a job in PR.