• July 1, 2016
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Three Little Words

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So it’s July, and the political scene is really heating up with just a few months left before the elections. Maybe. I’m writing this well in advance, so I have no idea if there’s any excitement left in the race, or if the world has ended. The way it’s gone so far, I’m not placing any bets. This month’s column is going to mention politics but isn’t going to focus there. I wanted to say this in the first paragraph so there’s a chance you will read the rest.

Politics is a vicious field, whether we’re talking about national governments or small municipalities. Hardly surprising when you consider candidates are seeking to achieve authority over large numbers of people—you don’t seek office unless you believe you are right, and you will go to great lengths to prove your opponents wrong, or somehow unfit for the job. Candidates take shots at one another over their voting and legislative records. Whether it’s from a few months back or 20 years ago, they’ll call out one another for unpopular opinions or—and this is great—for changing their minds.

It’s all so hateful. If only more people could learn to say three little words. No, not those three. I’m talking about “I was wrong.”

Politicians believe they can’t show any weakness, and that includes having been on the wrong side of an issue once (or more). They think it’s dangerous to admit mistakes, but they’re wrong. Defending something that isn’t defensible only makes it worse. Admitting a mistake defuses it.

We may think that an apology is composed of “I’m sorry.” But that’s not an apology; it’s almost meaningless. You can formulate a non-apology apology very easily—“I’m sorry you feel that way,” “I’m sorry for the collateral damage,” and so forth. The words that carry meaning are my three little friends up there. “I was wrong” takes ownership of the mistake and admits that it was wrong and harmful.

This applies to differences of opinion as well. Which is more satisfying, somebody saying you were right in a disagreement, or the other party saying they were wrong? One can say another is right, but saying “I was wrong” accepts responsibility for the disagreement. There’s a world of difference between the two.

Unfortunately, the corporate mind-set isn’t far from the politician’s in many cases. Businesses think it’s dangerous to admit they were wrong. Granted, in some cases this is literally true, when there is the possibility of criminal or civil liability leading to suits. Why else are there so many settlements where there is specifically no admission of wrongdoing by the paying party? “Here’s some money; now let’s go our separate ways before we have to admit we caused harm.”

Many people hear about huge lawsuits against businesses where, time and again, the plaintiff says it’s not about the money, but getting the defendants to admit they were wrong and to make sure it never happens again. We tend to scoff at this, but it’s truer than we’re willing to admit. Put yourself in the injured party’s place and you might agree that it’s not about winning the courtroom lottery—it’s about wanting a real apology and proper restitution, coupled with a promise that nobody else will ever have to go through a similar situation.

Even in cases where there’s cause for action, an admission that you screwed up goes a long way toward mending the situation. Remember the social media classic “United Breaks Guitars”? Dave Carroll, the injured party, would have been happy (and quiet) if United Airlines had simply admitted wrongdoing and paid the $3,500 to replace his guitar. Instead, United was indifferent and stuck to the letter of their unreasonably restrictive claims process. In exchange for failing to admit it was $3,500 worth of wrong, United found itself on the receiving end of a viral video whose popularity ultimately cost the company $180 million in shareholder value. It also gave me a story I can return to whenever I have no idea what else to write about. Thanks, guys.

 Marshall Lager apologizes for Third Idea Consulting, and is the first to admit when he’s wrong—which he rarely is. Disagree? Discuss it with him at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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