A Sorry State – the Importance of a Culture of Contrition

Witnessing Cultural meltdown

We all make mistakes, or as Alexander Pope put it all the way back in 1711, “To err, is human”.  Indeed, it’s one of humanity’s great truths. But what is the impact on the customer when corporate cultures reach a point of toxicity where they are unwilling (or unable) to show contrition for their mistakes? What if they are not mistakes at all, but rather symptoms of an underlying culture riven with fear, lies and abuse?

The reality is, by the time the public sees the sort of literal beat down that United Airlines so recently doled out to one of its own paying customers, the culture has been rotting away for some time. Bill O’Reilly didn’t sexually harass women for years on end in a culture otherwise filled with honourable, respectful fellow employees. The CEO of Barclays didn’t wake up one morning and become the only person in the bank to ever break the rules so badly, as to attempt to unmask a whistle-blower using their own company’s resources. Oh no! By the time we, the public, hear about this level of shocking behaviour, it has been: permitted, funded and culturally supported, from the very top – often for decades.

Sorry is the hardest thing to say: the cost of bad culture

Over the past few weeks alone, we have witnessed not just terrible behaviour, but awful apologies in response to these deplorable acts, and some, which were not actually apologies at all. Jes Staley (Barclays CEO), Oscar Munoz (CEO of United Airlines) and Bill O’Reilly (Fox News) can all tell you a thing or two about the personal and corporate costs of a poor or non-existent apology.

It’s worth acknowledging that the primary reason these apologies were either a) not believable or b) not forthcoming, is that the person behind these acts was not actually sorry. They were so unremorseful, in fact, that they couldn’t even convincingly fake it. As human beings, we are hardwired to sniff out inauthenticity because to do so is positively linked to our survival.

Consider briefly the risk you run from trusting someone who is not trustworthy. In the most extreme case they could get you killed, but much more likely in this day and age, an untrustworthy person or business could: bankrupt you, destroy your reputation, get you fired. To protect against this risk, human beings look for congruence in those they interact with. Our constantly-running inner monologue asks questions at warp speed during all our interactions: is this person fully aligned? Does what they say match their facial expressions, tone of voice, choice of words, actions? (Check out the TedTalk on How to Spot a Liar for more on this fascinating subject).

Because of this link to survival, we are constantly on the lookout in case a company/brand is: untrustworthy, inauthentic, breaks its own rules, says one thing and does another, is fear-based or bullies, demeans and abuses its employees (or even its own customers, here’s looking at you United!) In short, customers can see a company with poor culture from a mile off and the price can be devastating. These kinds of behaviour can: destroy your brand, hammer your bottom line, erode your humanity and ultimately undermine your purpose. Over time, the soul of the business gets eaten away and the costs to the company (in the most literal, financial sense) make survival, let alone success, hard or impossible.

Making it right: towards a culture of Contrition

Given the potentially devastating costs of cultural breakdowns, understanding how to make things right with the customer becomes critical. Fixing the kinds of cultures in the examples above can seem like a monumentally difficult task, but it all starts with 3 basic steps:

  1. Say Sorry! Start by taking responsibility (quickly!) and without caveats. Use ‘I’ active tense. Apologise to your customers and your employees. Demonstrate that you understand the specifics of what went wrong and your/the company’s role in it. Explain what has been done to deal with the immediate issue. Show awareness that breakdowns of this magnitude are not isolated issues and outline the steps being taken to address cultural issues at a systemic level. Commit to a timeline for following up on these steps.
  2. Investigate & Assess. Find out what is happening in your culture that led to this break down in trust. There are multiple tools to assess and measure company culture.
  3. Plan your culture journey and commit to positive change. Culture journeys can be painful at the start, especially when provoked by a serious incident (as in the above examples). They involve a true commitment to change and a willingness to be honest and reflective about how the business got here in the first place. Engaging an external Culture Transformation Consultant will give you the expertise, boundaries and objectivity required to support this journey. They can guide you through: culture assessments, defining purpose, vison & values and planning a programme that will close the gap between where you are today and your vision for a beautiful future.

In my next post I will be looking at fantastic examples of great Company Culture. Stay tuned!

For further information on how Pale Blue Coaching can support you on your culture journey please contact Claire Fry.