Opinion | Why politicians should apologize when they mess up
Admitting a mistake is seen as an act that will bring down a leader from his or her pedestal
During the demonetization exercise, 99.3% of demonetized notes were returned to the banks. This confirmed the fact that the exercise had failed to catch the corrupt. What if Prime Minister Narendra Modi had apologized to the nation for not delivering what he had promised to deliver?
Kerala faced the worst floods in a century. Obviously, serious doubts were raised about the proficiency of various state departments in managing the flood waters across Kerala. What if chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan had acknowledged these mistakes?
Will an acknowledgment of a mistake from these political leaders be their Waterloo, eroding their chances of winning the next election? Or would an apology make them more popular and increase their chances of winning the next election?
The common perception is that public apologies by leaders is a high-stakes move. It stems from the belief that leaders, political, corporate, religious, should be seen as infallible. As Kathryn Schulz wrote in her 2010 book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, “A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything. As absurd as it sounds, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.” Admitting a mistake is seen as an act that will bring down a leader from his or her pedestal.
India has many wicked problems to solve—corruption, income inequality, and sanitation, among others. It is not possible for any government to solve these problems in a short time. Some of these will never be solved permanently. In this scenario, it is not appropriate to focus exclusively on achieving the final outcome, which is uncertain and far in the future. Instead, the focus should be on the genuineness, quality and innovativeness of the processes deployed to achieve the final outcome. The solutions to various complex problems in our society are going to come in several small but significant steps. These small steps should be celebrated. It is also true that while solving a complex social problem, failures are bound to happen. The final outcomes achieved will not be up to the expected levels.
To allow for progress, we need a healthy environment for prudent, well-intended, experimentation. Therefore, we need an environment that allows the political leadership to acknowledge the mistakes that are bound to occur as part of their job. A culture that does not make it comfortable to acknowledge one’s mistakes will create an atmosphere of denial. In such a culture, the instinctive reaction in the face of a mistake will be to deny association with that mistake. Inaction that obviates any chance of a mistake will be more favoured than constructive action that has possibilities of causing mistakes. Covering up the mistake, obfuscating the situation, and diverting attention from the mistakes will become the norm.
The best learning often comes from our failures. The country will lose golden opportunities to have detailed analyses of our mistakes in the absence of an environment that allows their acknowledgement. The learning from those analyses will help us avoid repeating those mistakes and at the same time help develop better solutions. Various studies from behavioural sciences show that, evolutionarily, an apology is an effective strategy to induce higher levels of cooperation.
Kerala faced a once-in-a-lifetime flood. A natural calamity of such magnitude is bound to show up several chinks in our armour. Several of these mistakes would have been accumulated over decades. Because of this unprecedented stress test, several unexposed weaknesses are now revealed. It is an ideal situation to rebuild the state on a new foundation. For that, the government has to develop a mechanism where mistakes across the board are acknowledged and captured in detail.
What the chief minister apologizes for is critical. A Dutch study that looked at which apologies were effective concluded that apologies for actions rather than inactions repaired lost trust more effectively. As blame is diffused for legacy mistakes, acknowledging these (especially inactions) with concrete corrective action should be the first priority.
The timing of acknowledging the mistake is also crucial. As Frank Partnoy, the author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, argues, strategic stalling in apologizing often yields the best results. Apologies that come too late, like those that come too early, are likely to fail. A well-timed apology can defuse resentment, reduce litigation, and put the relationship on a new footing so it sometimes emerges stronger than it was before. With an effective apology, a leader is seen as taking control over the situation. It helps start the conversation on how to make up for the loss and move forward. It clears the path for future engagement and trust.
In Kerala, the critical crisis management stage of the disaster is over. Earlier, it was a time for immediate action. Now, it is the time for rehabilitation. Next, it will be the time for reconstruction. Now is an ideal time for introspection—for analysing the mistakes and inherent inadequacies that exacerbated the impact of the floods. The focus of this exercise should not be to start a blame game but instead to future-proof the various systems of the state.
Until now, policymakers have admired the Kerala model of development. Now is an opportunity to show the country yet another model of development, by effectively admitting one’s mistakes.
Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.
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