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Building Fluency: The Psychology of Apology

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

These materials look at talking about the topic of Apology and Apologising.

I have used the article The Psychology Of Apology: How Did Starbucks' CEO Kevin Johnson Do? as the basis of the materials.

As you have probably recognised, this is about a specific incident in which Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson faced a public backlash following the arrest of two black men waiting for a friend in a Philadelphia branch. Because they hadn’t purchased anything, the manager allegedly deemed the two men to be suspicious and called the police.


Read the article and think about the following questions:

  1. What are the ‘seven necessary components of a corporate response to a crisis’, and how did Johnson achieve these?

  2. The article contains an example sentence that could have been said by the CEO - "I can't really know the feelings you had when this occurred. I imagine if it were me I would feel humiliation, rage, and a terrible sense of helplessness and bitterness. And I am so very sorry for causing that emotional damage.", how was this sentence used to show empathy?

  3. Then, can you think of a time where you, or your organisation were required to give an apology to a customer/client? How did that apology match to the points mentioned in the article (the seven components)?


When Philadelphia police led two young black men away in handcuffs from a Starbucks for, basically, sitting at a table and being black, the company’s CEO, Kevin Johnson, was faced with the challenge of handling the ensuing crisis. While video of the disturbing incident went viral and community protests mounted, Johnson had to deal with the damage the incident did both to the victims and to the company's image. As part of his response, he had to make a rapid assessment of the situation, find the right words for a public apology and take remedial action.

Johnson did a very good job.

His fellow CEOs, United's Oscar Munoz and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, recently faced a similar challenge and both failed to meet the bar that Johnson has now set. The inevitability and frequency of these events, immediately amplified by social media, seem to make apology skills part of a CEO's qualifications or at least preparation for the job.

The media have taken to calling corporate crisis reactions apology tours, or damage control tours, two phrases that carry a snarky tone and demean the whole process. The phrase apology tour immediately casts the leader's actions as a craven, insincere attempt to get the whole mess behind him. While damage control regarding the corporation's or leader's reputation is certainly necessary, there's an inevitable tension present. A convincing and real apology shows that you care more about the damage you've done to others than the damage done to your brand.

There are seven necessary components of a corporate response to a crisis that demands an apology:

  1. An immediate, non-defensive acknowledgment that real damage was done.

  2. Taking personal responsibility for the event.

  3. Conveying a specific understanding of the effect of your company's action on the victim(s).

  4. Avoiding excuses, rationalizations or the slightest hint of blaming the victim.

  5. Providing appropriate compensation to those affected by the company's error or bad behaviour.

  6. Detailing a plan for addressing the cause of the problem, especially systemic issues.

  7. A commitment to and evidence of follow-up action.

How did Starbucks' Johnson do? Just about as well as any corporate leader I've seen in action following this kind of crisis. The series of actions Johnson took put the concept of damage control squarely where it belongs: addressing the damage done to the customers and the public, rather than to Starbucks' brand.

Johnson quickly issued a detailed apology and plan of action and posted a video of it on the Starbucks website. In this statement, Johnson took personal and full responsibility. He described the event as reprehensible. He avoided excuses, rationalizations or blaming the victim. He focused on systemic problems rather than the individual behavior of the manager who called the police. This latter decision was a sophisticated action that Justin Bariso, writing in Inc., wisely singled out as a leadership lesson we all can learn from: "Firing one or two employees will probably do more harm than good. It can easily be seen as an attempt to create a scapegoat or sweep larger issues under the rug."

In Johnson's public statement he specifically acknowledged the underlying problems of discrimination and racial profiling and announced that Starbucks stores would be closed May 29 for a day of training on unconscious racial bias. He also announced that he would travel to Philadelphia to speak with local law enforcement and government officials, regional store managers and the two men who had been arrested, respectfully acknowledging that this final option was up to them.

Johnson followed through, meeting in Philadelphia four days after the incident with Mayor Kenney, Police Commissioner Richard Ross and the two men who had been arrested, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson.

Johnson's meeting with Nelson and Robinson resulted in a settlement that included an undisclosed financial payment and an offer of free tuition to complete online undergraduate degrees at Arizona State University. Additionally, Starbucks stated in a press release on May 2, "Robinson and Nelson will have an opportunity to provide input based on their personal experience to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as part of the company’s long-term diversity and equity efforts."

The Necessity and Difficulty of Empathizing with the Experience of the Other

It's this last point that illuminates a dimension of apology that all of us have the hardest time with, relating to the limitations of our capacity for empathy. And it may be the most important thing for everyone in the country to grapple with at this time of unparalleled social divisiveness.

The stated purpose of the meetings with Holder was to aid in his efforts to help the company improve its diversity initiatives. There might be psychological value also for Robinson and Nelson. Holder, as a black man, might immediately understand what the young men went through. How humiliating, enraging, frightening, shaming, and soul-destroying it can be to be perp-walked out of an establishment that brands itself as a community gathering place just because of the color of your skin.

And to know that despite all those intense feelings, you had better be submissive to the police officers lest you get physically harmed or charged with resisting arrest. Does anyone believe that two quiet, non-disruptive white men sitting at a table in a Starbucks waiting for a colleague, not yet having ordered anything, would be asked to leave the store? And that if they refused, they would find themselves in handcuffs minutes later?

The Missing Piece

Johnson's actions really were an excellent example of taking moral responsibility for the incident, not just focussing on corporate damage control. But here's the one thing missing from his response to the situation. A personal, empathic acknowledgment of the emotional damage done to each of the young men: the repetitive emotional trauma of being treated like a criminal until proven otherwise because of the color of your skin. Holder will probably get that, and its lifelong implications, and presumably talk to the young men about it. But white people need to get it too and say something about it out loud whenever we can.

Something like: "I can't really know the feelings you had when this occurred. I imagine if it were me I would feel humiliation, rage, and a terrible sense of helplessness and bitterness. And I am so very sorry for causing that emotional damage."

Johnson would have gotten a perfect score from me on corporate apology if he had included a statement like that--an effort to try to be empathic to the victims of the incident. To understand not just that wrong was done but how that wrong made the victims feel as well as the complex and lasting psychological repercussions of the event for them.

As a white person, I can't be sure though that I'm not being tone deaf here somewhere. There remains the question whether we can be fully empathic to someone whose life experience is different from ours in significant ways. But the best we can do as humans is to use our common humanity and try to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. The effort itself, even if it falls short, is worthwhile.


Lastly, it's worth watching the video of Johnson issuing a public apology - how convincing do you find him?


You've started to think about the topic and build your vocabulary - to really build on developing your spoken fluency then this needs to be done through active usage of the language - contact me on to discuss how we can put together a series of personalised lessons to develop your fluency on the topics that are most relevant to yourself!

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