Mea Culpas

In 2006 I wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review titled, “When Should a Leader Apologize – and When Not?” The question of when it is wise publicly to apologize for a mistake or transgression came to mind again this week when, lo and behold, emerged from the woodwork a whole new army of apologizers.

Who might they be? What sin did they commit? What error did they make that was so egregious they deserve their humiliations and flagellations – most of them self-imposed? Weathermen! Weatherwomen! Meteorologists who predicted heavy snows in Philadelphia and New York when there were none – or, at least, not so much.

The facts are these: 1) some of the weather predictions were wrong; 2) some government officials made decisions based on erroneous predictions; and 3) some of these decisions were costly. Other of the facts are these: 1) some of the weather predictions were right; 2) some government officials made decisions based on correct predictions; and 3) some of these decisions saved lives. Of course the overriding fact is that predicting the weather – especially when it comes to precisely predicting just before and even during a blizzard the amount of snowfall in any given area – is a famously inexact science, with a large cone of uncertainty.

To be sure, this cone of uncertainty was never adequately conveyed by most meteorologists. Nearly without exception they seemed certain that this week’s storm would be of historic proportions, from Philadelphia to Bangor. But this flair for the dramatic, this brief show of hubris, does not merit their incessant self-abasement. It does not merit seasoned forecasters like Al Roker and Bill Karins going on about how abysmally wrong they were, and it certainly does not merit relative newcomers to the forecasting business such as Gary Szatkowski repeatedly tweeting messages such as “My deepest apologies to many key decision makers and so many members of the general public.”

Even since I wrote my 2006 article the pressure publicly to apologize for whatever the error has become greater. People who are visible – leaders, celebrities, experts – tend to feel obliged to apologize even when an expression of regret is unlikely in any way to be helpful, to anyone. So let me here reiterate some of the questions I raised earlier – questions that should be answered before deciding whether or not to issue a public apology.

First, what function would such an apology serve? Second, who would benefit from a public apology? Third, why exactly would such an apology matter? Fourth, what is likely to happen if you apologize publicly? And finally, what is likely to happen if you do not apologize publicly?

Making a public apology is like printing money. If you print too much of it – if you apologize too much or too often – inflation will set in. The coin of the realm will be diminished and devalued.

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