4 mins to read

Sorry seems to be the easiest word

From the CTV collapse to Solid Energy, Public Relations 101 now teaches anyone who does anything wrong to say they are sorry as soon as they can. It is the first step to recovery. But as with Steven Joyce and Novopay, you have to own a problem and

Steve Maharey
Sun, 05 May 2013

Elton John, who has had a lot to apologise for, once advised us “sorry seems to be the hardest word”. Not any more. Public relations 101 now teaches anyone who does anything wrong to say they are sorry as soon as they can. It is the first step to recovery.

Now everyone in public life says sorry. The only problem is that this tsunami of sorrow has debased the currency. Sorry is no longer enough. Those saying sorry have to do so with enough conviction to convince increasingly cynical audiences.

Not long ago, Don Elder and John Palmer faced this problem when they decided to say sorry as often as possible for the problems that emerged at Solid Energy. They almost made it.

I say almost because despite saying sorry they followed the now equally well-worn track of carefully avoiding taking responsibility for anything. They were sorry for what happened but could accept no blame because they were simply trying their best. 

Because their audience was keen to understand why Solid Energy was some $400 million in a hole and hundreds of people were out of work this attempt to balance caring with no responsibility did not wash. Somebody screwed up somewhere.

The Elder/Palmer situation is not unique. No one seems to be responsible for the Novopay debacle. Decisions were made that, “with the benefit of hindsight” would have been not been made. But that’s life. Meanwhile, thousands of teachers and school administrators are caused enormous stress and can find no one to hold accountable.

No one was responsible for any of the finance company collapses that have impacted so harshly on the lives of thousands of New Zealanders. Board member after board member apologised but exempted themselves from any responsibility. One, perhaps speaking for many, was reported as saying he had “tossed board papers over his shoulder” assuming that they had been read by someone.

No one has indicated they are the ready and willing to explain the collapse of the construction section of Mainzeal. The collapse of the CTV building in Christchurch was a tragedy but apparently no one can be held accountable.

It seems a private member’s bill passed in 2002 made it impossible to even stop an engineer thought to be responsible for shoddy work from practising. No one is responsible for the failure to protect private information. Even the global financial crisis seems to be no one’s responsibility. The list goes on.

And it will continue to grow because decisions will continue to be made that simply do not work out. Anyone who has been in a position to make decisions wishes they could see into the future so as to be better informed. But they can’t so mistakes are always possible. What are we then to do?

We could make an apology (perhaps even a sincere one) and hope that will be then end of it.

But we could also do what one of the best leaders and managers I have ever met advises. When a problem arises, “Own it, fix it and move on.”

This is quite revolutionary advice in the current “sorry” climate.

It takes sorry for granted and cuts to the important chase.

Someone has to say the problem is mine, “I own it.” That person (or persons) can then apply themselves to fixing the problem. Without ownership of a problem no one actually does something about it.

Note that until Steven Joyce (who actually had nothing to do with the problem) was given Novopay nothing serious happened.

A problem owned and fixed can be moved on from. No matter how big the problem there is no value in wallowing in it if someone is prepared to own it and fix it.

For my money, the own it, fix it, move on model trumps the “sorry - but it wasn’t me” approach any day.  But for it to emerge as the preferred way of acting other changes will have to happen. 

As individuals we have to be prepared to be accountable and if necessary do something as drastic as step aside. In these cases it will be matter of doing things in a slightly different order – moving on so someone else can own and fix the problem.

But in most cases when a mistake is made the person involved is able to fix it ­ if we let them.  As a society we have to allow people to put their hand up without savaging them.

Perhaps because we live in such a small society, we have a propensity to relentlessly attack public figures when mistakes are made. We leave them no avenue forward.

No wonder people who make mistakes are anxious to find a way of avoiding responsibility. The consequences for them, their career and family can be nothing short of devastating.

So they say they are sorry, avoid blame and problems do not get attended to. The victims of their mistakes are left to boil with unrequited anger.

In everyday life we do not do this. We know it is a nonsense way to act. We allow people the space to own up, fix the problem and move on.

It is time we did this in public life.

Sociologist and former Labour cabinet minister Steve Maharey is vice-chancellor of Massey University.
Steve Maharey
Sun, 05 May 2013
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Sorry seems to be the easiest word