The Right Way to Apologize


If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve had to apologize multiple times and, if you’re a married man, you’ve done it countless times. But not all apologies are the same. Some people apologize because they get caught and now must find a way clean it up. Others manage to say sorry while shifting the blame to someone else like their employees or to the ever-so-nebulous “unforeseen circumstances.”

Sunday I had to apologize to my youngest son for losing my patience with him and behaving in a matter that was inappropriate and frankly, wrong. He quickly forgave me and we ended up snuggling on the couch as we watched a movie together.

As a leader, I have had to make my share of apologies as well. This week I was reminded of how powerful and effective an apology can be by Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon “erased” several books from people’s Kindles that, according to the company, had been uploaded illegally. They clearly mishandled the situation by deleting these purchases and refunding buyers without any notice. However, Jeff’s apology saved the day.

This is an apology for the way we previously handled illegally sold copies of 1984 and other novels on Kindle. Our “solution” to the problem was stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles. It is wholly self-inflicted, and we deserve the criticism we’ve received. We will use the scar tissue from this painful mistake to help make better decisions going forward, ones that match our mission.

With deep apology to our customers,

Jeff Bezos
Founder & CEO

How have apologies (good or bad) affected you?

  • Sometimes I think it is easier apologizing to an equal (like a spouse) than to someone that you are over (at work or in the home – like your children). I do think that a real apology has to take the blame and then give an explanation of how things will be different in the future!

  • Chris

    Someone emailed me with "I'm sorry you feel this way." This is not an apology, it's just acknowledging that I'm not happy with them. It's restating the obvious. Bezo's note is a true apology.

  • Anonymous

    I think you left off an important part of an "apology". The part where we ask forgiveness.The way I apologize is…"I am sorry for ________ will you forgive me?"

  • I wonder if Apple will apologize to iPhone developers for how they've handled a series of recent App Store blunders. I give Bezos major credit for taking that approach.

  • I don't think I've seen a company deal with something like this with as much acceptance of blame and sincerity. This was a great example and thankfully goes counter to the mindset that leaders don't admit weakness or apologize when they are wrong.

  • Mr Data

    How do you apologize to someone who gives you the 'cold shoulder' treatment?I mean they are not going to listen to you so what does it take?Screaming it out of frustration?

  • Mr Data,Your job is to sincerely apologize; however, you have no control whether it will be received or not. That's up to the other person. Interestingly the apology will do more for you than for them. Once you do the right thing, it's officially over. Now the ball is on their court and they have to deal with it.

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