What can a chicken shortage teach us about leadership?
By: Pratibha Deepak
The recent KFC chicken shortage in the UK and their clever apology, raises questions regarding the effectiveness of apologies as a recovery strategy when an organization, or a leader, make a mistake. Last week, KFC offered this statement (and hilarious advertisement) in response to closing hundreds of their UK stores due to a chicken shortage:
“We’re sorry. A chicken restaurant without any chicken. It’s not ideal. Huge apologies to our customers, especially those who travelled out of their way to find we were closed. And endless thanks to our KFC team members and our franchise partners for working tirelessly to improve the situation. It’s been a hell of a week, but we’re making progress, and every day more and more fresh chicken is being delivered to our restaurants. Thank you for bearing with us.”
KFC is not the first to offer such an apology. Many leaders have offered apologies in the past for errors with much more life threatening consequences.
In 2009, General Motors recalled 30 million cars after Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, issued a public apology taking full responsibility for 13 deaths caused by faulty ignitions:
"Today GM will do the right thing," said Barra, who was named CEO in January. "That begins with my sincere apologies to everyone who has been affected by this recall, especially the families and friends (of those) who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry."
With this apology, Barra become an instant celebrity leader, public and corporates alike appreciated Barra for her courage, her accountability to the crisis, and her determination to make it right. Another example, one that became one of the best examples of a leader apology in recent history, was seen in the Johnson and Johnson Tylenol Crisis. With seven people dead from consuming over the counter Tylenol Capsules, many thought it might be the death of the Tylenol brand. James Burke, CEO of John and Johnson at that time, assumed full responsibility and even went public with his apology. Within a year, Tylenol had captured 90% of its market share.
Mary Barra and James Burke became role models for corporate apology, and leadership institutes have even started sharing lessons in how to apologize effectively rather than how to take accountability.
But, are leader apologies really effective in regaining follower trust?
Experimental research in this field says, “maybe not!” In an experimental study by Kim et al. (2004), they found that, follower trust in leaders was repaired more successfully when the mistrusted parties apologized for competency related violations but for violations pertaining to integrity, denial was found to be the more efficient approach. In yet another study by Skarlickj et al.(2004), they found that apologies are not always effective in promoting forgiveness.
Moreover, the world of apologies is in itself quite tricky. An apology that is too late, empty, or not followed by meaningful action may do more harm than good.
So, how can a leader make an effective apology?
An apology can strengthen an organization, reposition a brand, repair relationships and may also act as a tonic for the psychological well-being of leader, however it has to be done correctly.
Because apologizing can be quite a tricky thing to do, it is helpful to have an “apology design”, the following checklist will help to deliver an impactful apology.
It should clearly serve a purpose and address an event when a clear error was done.
Combine an apology with an appropriate action plan that addresses the problem, victims, or steps needed to recover from the error. What made Tim Cook's apology (CEO, Apple) on Apple Maps effective was that along with a clear apology, it also provided a clear action plan and alternatives to Apple Users.
If you have decided to apologize, then don’t pass the buck.This goes to show that you are not in control.
For example, Volkswagen’s US head, Michael Horn issued an apology but in doing so, took little to no responsibility by blaming his software engineers for the car’s illegal software to cheat on emission tests. He said:
“This was a couple of software engineers who put this in for whatever reason,” Horn said to the House of Representatives Oversight and Investigations Committee, according to NBC News. “This was not a corporate decision. There was no board meeting that approved this.”
Make sure the apology swiftly follows the error. For an example of what not to do, just look to Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings. In response to customer outrage on Netflix price hike, Hastings issued an apology that came two months late!
So, the next time you make an error, and before you rush out to make an apology, stop and ask yourself-is it the right thing to do? Once you have decided that an apology is the right recovery method to repair relationships, then don’t hesitate to own responsibility and back it up with a clear action plan.