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Apologies from Britain's Top Bankers Analysed

20 September 2010

Sorry really is the hardest word when it comes to Britain’s banking bosses taking responsibility for their part in the economic downturn, according to new research from the University of Ulster. 

Communications expert Professor Owen Hargie has analysed the public testimony of four CEOs during the government’s Banking Crisis Inquiry last year, alongside academic colleagues Dr Karyn Stapleton at Ulster and Professor Dennis Tourish at the University of Kent. 

The research paper, ’Interpretations of CEO public apologies for the banking crisis: attributions of blame and avoidance of responsibility’, will be published in the major US management journal, Organization, in November. 

Sir Tom McKillop, former Chairman of RBS Group plc, Sir Fred Goodwin, former Chief Executive of RBS Group plc, Lord Stevenson, former Chairman of HBOS plc and Andy Hornby, former Chief Executive of HBOS plc – all gave evidence to the House of Commons Treasury Committee as part of its investigation into the banking crisis. 

“This study provides an analysis of public apology in a context of heightened public anger and blame attribution. The perceived identity of the bankers as ethical, competent and just individuals was at risk, resulting in the construction of narrative accounts by them for failure which stressed the importance of external factors and de-emphasised the role of individual decision making in crucial situations,” explained Professor Hargie. 

“The result is that the speakers decline to publicly and unreservedly apologise for their actions. Our detailed analysis of their responses has revealed that they employ a range of strategies through which they negotiate and avoid doing so, including the use of excuses to suggest that impersonal forces over which no-one had any control were at work. Within the current culture of public apology such behaviour is notable and it offers interesting insights into both the nature of public apology and the link between apology and acceptance of blame/responsibility. 

“The bankers would have wanted to avoid confirming the public’s worst presumptions about their culpability and motivation, further losing face in the process. They would also have wanted to avoid outraging the public by denying that a problem existed at all. Hence, their tactical choice to surround their acts of apology with qualifications (the avoidance of personal responsibility), in the process going to great lengths to circumvent the relevant speech forms normally associated with the apology phenomenon. 

“Such a pattern can be explained by the association between apology and the acceptance of responsibility and perhaps more importantly in this case, the expectation that those responsible for a transgression/negative event should offer some form of reparation. 

“The bankers clearly stood to lose a lot, both professionally and financially, if they admitted any responsibility for the banking crisis. Therefore, it was imperative that they should not offer a full and direct apology. In contrast, apologies offered by politicians for historical events do not entail acceptance of personal responsibility by the speakers. 

“The present study has charted strategies of apology avoidance under conditions of perceived personal responsibility and potential personal costs. There is a marked divergence between these data and the public apologies offered increasingly and enthusiastically by politicians with respect to historical events. Hence, in the ‘age of apology’, there is a need to delineate further the conditions under which public apology can, in fact, be said to have taken place.” 

Professor Hargie says public apologies are now the norm for senior politicians who routinely express contrition for historical events such as slavery, apartheid and genocide.  

“However, these events by their very nature are not attributable to the apologiser and nor are the apologisees directly affected by them. On this basis it might be questioned whether such public expressions can meaningfully constitute apologies. Notably, they can be contrasted with the present study, where the events in question clearly do provide grounds for apology,” he said. 

“It is safe to assume that the apologisers would be likely to be held directly responsible by the media, politicians and wider society for the problems under discussion and the apologisees would consequently consider themselves to have been directly affected by their actions."  

Dr Karyn Stapleton, who is also based in the School of Communication at the Jordanstown campus, added that the study had examined naturally occurring CEO talk in a social context in which the CEOs themselves, their politician interrogators, the media reporting the event and the wider public all had powerful and conflicting agendas. 

“We explored in this paper how crucial organisational actors have utilised some of the vocabulary of apologies to position themselves in the context of a hostile public opinion. In particular, our analysis has explored some of the tensions that arise in the discourse of CEOs as they seek to craft compelling accounts for what others see as failure, while simultaneously seeking to preserve their reputation for probity in decision-making and their long term public and private image,” she said. 

“Our study of their discourse around the theme of apologies, while not exhaustive, therefore affords an interpretive framework within which CEO language can be analysed for intention, image projection, sincerity and efficacy.     

“We conclude that the CEO’s dialogue is characterised by expressions of regret, attempts to articulate alignment with others affected by the crisis and dissociation from the events being scrutinised, in order to avoid direct culpability for the crisis and invoke instead the spectre of impersonal global events which mitigates personal responsibility.“