I had a college professor who would frequently say, “We don’t only learn from good examples.” She believed when people made mistakes, it was an opportunity for others to learn what not to do. She was even bold enough to suggest that we should be thankful to leaders, teachers, parents, and other authority figures who stumbled; their mistakes could save us from making similar ones.

If she was right, and I think she was, we all owe United Airlines a big thank you.

The Power of 3 Simple Words

United’s massive stumble illustrated to everyone who was paying attention the power of three simple words.

I was wrong.

After a video of a United passenger being dragged off an airplane became the lead story on every newscast of the day, United had a chance to squelch public outrage. Instead, a tone-deaf public statement followed by a leaked internal memo fanned the flames. Though United CEO Oscar Munoz released a more appropriate apology two days after the event, the damage was done. The company’s market value took a $200 million dive, and its brand is in the toilet — becoming the subject of vicious memes and late night television monologues.

In our hyper-litigious culture, leaders must be measured in their words and careful not to admit fault or open their companies up to expensive legal battles. That being said, I think we can all agree, United’s handling of this situation is serving as an example of exactly what not to do.

Rather than accept responsibility, United blamed the victim. Rather than acknowledge wrongdoing, United trotted out corporate speak. Rather than admit they’d handled the situation poorly, United issued a non-apology apology.

Imagine how this story might be different if initially, United addressed the situation with three simple words.

I can hear my professor now, “We don’t only learn from good examples.”

When Non-Apology Apologies Disappoint

Accepting responsibility for our blunders is tough. We’re forced to be vulnerable. However, when we accept responsibility our vulnerability is empowering — much more empowering than pointing fingers.

What is most important about accepting responsibility is the apology that follows those three simple words. In a kind world, we accept blame for what we’ve done wrong and then apologize for the consequences that others have endured because of our actions. This is really tough to do. This takes guts. This takes courage. This takes humility.

Instead of doing the hard thing, too often we are tempted to walk the simpler, less challenging path. We fail to accept responsibility and then heap a non-apology apology on top of our actions to make things all better.

My grandmother was fearless in the kitchen. After raising eight kids and cooking for an army nightly, she knew a thing or two. She had a few signature savory dishes, but my favorites were always her desserts. She was always trying something new – sometimes her desserts were a hit, other times they flopped. We knew we’d either end up with a delicious dessert or story that we could laugh about for years to come. She made one dessert item that I always avoided though — homemade whipped cream. She never sweetened it! It was simply heavy cream whipped. She didn’t add the sugar. Her whipped cream looked like whipped cream. It was the right color and the right consistency, but it absolutely didn’t taste like the whipped cream I knew and loved.

A non-apology apology reminds me of my grandma’s homemade whipped cream. At first glance, it seems like what you want, but it turns out to be a fluffy dollop of disappointment. A non-apology apology starts with the words “I’m sorry,” but it always ends with a bad taste in your mouth.

Non-apology apologies are to be avoided at all cost — watch out for these three popular phrases that masquerade as penitence.

The Power of 3 Simple Words

“I’m sorry that you feel that way.”

This one tends to come up when a person or leader is confronted with the damage or hurt their actions have caused to others. It’s typically a response to someone’s criticism of his or her behavior.

It’s tricky because on the surface it sounds like a compassionate response. But when used in place of an apology, it isn’t. No person can or should apologize for the way another person feels. When someone apologizes for how you feel, what they’re really doing is reassigning their guilt. If you’ve been brave enough to speak up and share hurt feelings, nobody has the right to tell you that your feelings are wrong. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” casts the person feeling hurt as the wrongdoer rather than the person causing the hurt feelings. I told you, it’s tricky. A better option might be, “I’m sorry to hear that,” or “I’m sorry for causing you to feel that way.”

“I’m sorry things worked out this way.”

Translation: I’m not to blame. This one is another sneaky way to dodge responsibility. It removes culpability from the speaker and insinuates that things “just happened.” At least here, the speaker isn’t shifting blame to another person. However, he or she certainly isn’t taking responsibility for his or her part in the way “things worked out.”

“I’m sorry, but…”

This one starts out solid and then all the goodness is wiped away by the “but.” Unless of course the but is followed by, “I couldn’t be sorrier for my actions.” #sorryamsorry

Chances are whatever is following that but is an excuse and excuses ruin apologies. Excuses cheapen, weaken, dilute, and nullify any regret expressed. Period.

Learning from Bad Examples

I watched “All the King’s Men” again recently and was reminded of the phrase Ben Bradlee coined during the Watergate investigation, a non-denial denial. We all know how well those non-denial denials worked for the Nixon administration. Non-apology apologies are fruit of the same vine and yield equally unappetizing results.

When you’re wrong, say you’re wrong. Accepting responsibility is an act of courage. It is the first step toward learning from your mistake and becoming a better leader and, more importantly, a better human being.

We don't only learn from good examples. The United debacle can serve as a lesson about the power of 3 simple words.

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