The Ellen Degeneres Apology: What Worked, What Didn’t and Why
The premiere of the 18th season of The Ellen Degeneres Show opened with an apology from the host.
This was the first episode of the show since claims of bullying and sexual misconduct in the workplace led to an investigation and the firing of three producers.
How did Ellen do with her apology?
First, let’s talk about apologies. Aaron Lazare wrote a book called On Apology that provides insights on how we think, react and evaluate apologies.
That’s because one of the most significant human interactions involves the offering and accepting of apologies. Apologies can heal, lead to forgiveness, remove the desire for vengeance, and eliminate the fear of it. Apologies can restore self-respect and dignity and lead to meaningful dialogue.
Globalization and technology, primarily the internet, increased our level of offering and our awareness of apologies from leaders, celebrities and even friends and family on social media over the last 15 years.
This increase in apologies leads to what Lazare calls the Paradox of Apologies: Effective apologies help a lot but ineffective ones hurt the relationship.
Back to Ellen because she would benefit from reading the book On Apology.
The first step in an effective apology is to acknowledge the offense.
Here’s an example:
“I screwed up when I said or did X. I apologize because it hurt you.”
On the other end of the spectrum, here’s an example of failing to acknowledge the offense:
“I apologize for whatever I did that might’ve hurt you.”
Ellen opened the show and her apology with a couple of jokes and then said “Let’s get to it.” This opening could have been more direct instead of trying to incorporate humor.
Give the apology, make it sincere.
I realize the show is meant to be humorous and that Ellen is a comedian. However, what would the impact had been if she had opened like this:
“Welcome to the premiere of season 18 of The Ellen Degeneres Show. I want to start things off with an apology to current and past employees who were impacted when I wasn’t at my best. I’m human and while I strive to be kind, sometimes I’m not. I get frustrated, sad, disappointed and need to do better when communicating during those times. I also need to do better as a leader because when others on my team are off their game and don’t treat people as well as they can, I need to be there to lead. I need to make sure we do better in the future. I’m apologizing here and now to those who were impacted and I’m committed to improving as a person and as a leader.”
Think about how that would impact those who she’s apologizing to. Now think about how those who she was apologizing to felt about her actual delivery.
Instead, Ellen briefly mentioned there were allegations and an investigation. She said she learned about things that happened and takes it seriously followed by saying: “I’m so sorry to the people who’ve been affected.”
She’s using passive voice which is common with ineffective apologies. “I learned some things happened…”or a more common one is “mistakes have been made.”
She’s not talking about her mistakes or apologizing for her actions. She’s basically saying
“Stuff happened. They investigated. We learned some things happened.” This again abdicates her from personal responsibility.
She mentions that she takes it serious and she’s sorry if anyone was hurt by it. That’s not an apology for her leadership or lack thereof.
She followed that by saying that she takes responsibility for it which is a step in the right direction. She goes on to say that her name is on the show and went on to make another joke.
Next Degeneres told the story of how she became the “Be Kind Lady” and how that name can create a tricky situation because you can be criticized if you’re not always kind.
This could be perceived that she’s implying that she’s also a victim. I’m not sure she was but I can see how others have perceived it that way.
The good news is she then followed up with some vulnerability. She said how she is the person she says she is and that we see on her show. Yes, she’s kind but she also gets sad, mad, anxious and frustrated. She was connecting with the audience by showing that she too is human. She said she’s working on it which most of us can relate to. We’re all a work in progress, right?
But then she used what Lazare outlines as another example of an ineffective apology, making the offense conditional.
In his book, he provides examples like “If mistakes have been made…” and “If anyone was hurt…” followed by “I’m sorry.”
Ellen came pretty close to matching those examples of ineffective apologies when she said: “If I’ve ever let someone down or if I’ve ever hurt their feelings, I’m so sorry for that.”
She went on to praise the 270 employees who make the show great. She added that all she wants is for them to be happy. The crowd applauded.
That’s what makes this apology so different. It is a public apology which means multiple target audiences.
One target market was Ellen’s fans. Another was potential new fans as part of the audience checking in to see what she would say or watching clips after the show.
For those two target markets, Ellen’s monologue was probably a success. The audience laughed. People pulling for her felt it was a good show. Her approach also seems to have worked with the general public because ratings were up.
Another target audience might have been the current and former employees who were impacted in the past. Apologies can heal and generate forgiveness. Do you think Ellen’s achieved those goals for that other audience, the people waiting for their apology? Because odds are that they don’t.