I’ve always believed when you screw up you should say you’re sorry. Forgiveness is usually generously given in light of a completely sincere acceptance of responsibility and repentance. When I ran for state senate in 2004 one of my key goals was to improve access to doctors in our state by working to change the medical malpractice legal system, and one policy I wanted to work hard to implement was the ability for doctors and hospitals to say they are sorry without such a statement being held against them legally. Such measures are in place in states like Colorado I believe and have been proven to be effective in reducing lawsuits and associated costs.
This article from New York Times suggests that this message is getting around–slowly and over the objections of trial attorneys. Here is strong evidence of the economic value of saying your sorry. Trial lawyers as a group would be well advised to change their tune and support this effort if they do not want to be perceived as caring only about their ability to take cases to court and win big settlements.
But there is more than economic value at stake here–there is moral value as well. How would you feel as a doctor knowing you had made a big mistake and caused a lot of pain and cost to the patient. Your sorrow in making that mistake would be compounded many times over by having to follow the policy of denial and defense. Yet that is the position we have put doctors and hospital administrators in. Repentance is cathartic, healing and restorative–especially when accompanied by forgiveness on the other end. We have been preventing those in the caring professions from experiencing this because–sorry I have to say this, because of trial lawyers’ greed.
The lesson for CEOs and crisis communicators ought to be clear. Your lawyer’s understandable first instinct when something seriously has gone wrong and your organization is responsible is to deny and defend. But if people or the public good has been harmed, the very best approach is to admit responsibility, communicate sorrow and regret, demonstrate you are painfully aware of the pain this has caused others, explain how you will do better, and ask for forgiveness. It’s good for your soul. It’s the best thing for your organization’s reputation and trust level. And, as this article demonstrates, it’s likely to best for your bottom line too.