In mid-June, recording artist Lizzo released an edited version of her song ‘Grrls’ after fans called out the original version’s use of the word “spaz,” a pejorative term against people with disabilities. After she apologized and announced the new version, fans quickly forgave, showing how powerful humility, accountability, and continual learning can be.
An ability to learn and evolve from missteps is one of the most important skills for people leaders, as Katie Burke, chief people officer at HubSpot, recently explained at EmTech Next, a conference co-produced by Charter and MIT Technology Review. “I do think all of us as leaders have an obligation to stay curious,” she said. “[You] can never get it wrong if you’re approaching things with empathy and curiosity.” And while it played out far from a traditional workplace setting, Lizzo’s acknowledgement of her mistake is also a case study for organizational leaders in how to take accountability. Here’s what she got right—and how others can model her apology.
Fast is better than perfect.
Lizzo posted her apology on Twitter and Instagram and released the re-recorded song just three days after the original version of ‘Grrrls’ was released on June 10th, a reaction that has been praised for its swiftness.
In the wake of controversy, it’s common practice for for leaders to prioritize fact-finding or fine-tuning their statements over moving quickly to address the harm caused. “Often executives want to get to the bottom of things to figure out what really happened,” says Maurice Schweitzer, author of Friend and Foe and professor of management at Wharton School of Business.“[But] speed signals candor and remorse in ways that a very thoughtful apology delivered later cannot.”
Schweitzer gives the example of United Airlines, which was slow to admit wrongdoing after videos of security officers violently removing a passenger started circulating online in 2017. The bungled response that followed included several subsequent apologies to an unsatisfied public. The response stands in contrast to that of Southwest Airlines in the wake of a fatal crash at Chicago Midway Airport in 2005. Almost immediately, the CEO flew to Chicago to publicly apologize, spurring headlines like “Southwest response called swift, caring.”
Accept responsibility without qualification.
In contemporary pop music, hits are often written collaboratively, and ‘Grrrls’ has no fewer than eight writers credited on the track. Still, Lizzo framed the mistake in her apology as one made by her alone.
Accepting blame isn’t just important for rebuilding relationships. It can be good for business, too, according to a 2015 study that examined 150 corporate press releases over a 15-year period. The authors found that companies that blamed their failures on external factors tended to see an extended financial decline, while those that accepted responsibility saw their earnings stabilize and recover, likely because they were more easily able to build credibility with investors and correct course.
Maintain a learning posture.
Lizzo acknowledged in her post that the apology came about as “the result of [her] listening and learning” after fans shared their concerns. As HubSpot’s Burke pointed out at EmTech Next, this orientation toward learning isn’t the same thing as people-pleasing—rather, it’s about keeping an open mind and listening with empathy when confronted about a possible mistake.
As an example, Burke shared how she responds during conversations like these: “Talk to me about why….Let’s understand what we can learn from it, understanding that I’m not necessarily going to work to make you happy or perfectly content here, but I am going to listen with a ton of intentionality about how I could have done better.”
Take concrete steps to repair harm.
Most importantly, Lizzo’s words were accompanied by action: Re-releasing her song without the offending lyrics demonstrated that she was not only willing to admit her mistake, but correct it as well.
As Schweitzer notes, an impactful apology communicates both regret and a commitment to change, especially when that change comes at a personal cost. Re-recording the song “is clearly a costly step that takes time and money,” he explains. “[By] paying the price, you can demonstrate that you have centered their concerns. You care about their feelings.” For managers as well as public figures, that’s the real power of an apology: the opportunity to repair relationships and rebuild trust.