By now, the only people who have not heard about what happened on a United Airlines flight leaving Chicago live under a rock. If you haven’t check it out here: www.stephenmizell.com/UnitedAirlines Something went terribly wrong.
Stuff happens. The truth is that problems arise. Sometimes they are of our own making and other times we have no control over them. Either way, our response will often determine how other people view the situation. There is no shortage of opinions about what happened prior to boarding the plane and how United dealt with their customers. The one person that seems to have gotten it completely wrong was the CEO of United, Oscar Munoz. His response became gasoline for the fire.
Harry Truman famously said “the buck stops here.” Ultimately the senior leader must take responsibility. They will set the tone on how their organization will respond when disaster happens, and this was about as bad as it could get. It is clear there were many things United Airlines could have done differently that would have avoided the altercation. Instead of offering regret and reconciliation he chose to avoid any responsibility all together.
Ironically, he had recently been given an award for being a great communicator. What should have been a straightforward acknowledgement of failure on the part of United turned into avoidance and defensiveness. There are some things all of us can learn from Oscar Munoz’s response. Specifically we can learn how NOT to apologize.
Don’t Avoid Reality
The CEO first talked about their attempt to “re-accommodate” passengers. No one wants to be “re-accommodated” like this doctor. His statement avoided the fact that the airline was booting passengers to accommodate their own employees because they had not planned the travel schedules of their own employees well enough. Munoz was attempting to deflect their portion of the blame.
When offering an apology, don’t offer an explanation There are very few situations where we do not bear some of the blame. An apology is not the time to deflect that responsibility nor is it time to offer an explanation of our point of view. Apologies are the time to apologize and shut up. Apologizing is one of the most disarming things you can do to your critics.
After his initial statement, CEO Munoz then sent a letter to the employees blaming the passenger. He talked about him being “disruptive and belligerent.” His failure to acknowledge the airline’s own shortcomings made his defensiveness even more offensive to the people that were listening. It became clear that CEO Munoz was more concerned about being right that he was concerned about the customer.
Blaming rarely solves a problem. Being defensive is our natural response, but when we are looking to diffuse a situation, we are better off leaving the accusations until later. When apologies are needed being right is usually not needed. Save being right for later. Be remorseful.
Don’t Be Afraid To Take The Blame
On his third try, he finally started getting the apology right. “I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right,” Munoz said in a statement on Tuesday. “I promise you we will do better.” That was about 48 hours too late. He needed to say that the first time. By the time he finally got around to saying these words it seemed insincere. It was almost as if the public had to put words in his mouth. Those apologies are rarely received well.
There is no shame in accepting blame, even if it is not fully your responsibility. In fact, some of the most influential people in the world have learned that it is often better to accept blame and move than to fight over every instance. All long lasting relationships include people who shoulder blame when it is not all theirs. Accepting blame allows everyone to move on a solutions to be found. Moving on is critical. Others have taken the blame for you at times I am sure.
We all need to apologize from time to time. Learning how to do it correctly can benefit you and everyone involved. Don’t be afraid to learn from other’s mistakes. This is one colossal mistake all of us can take something away from.
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