Going forward?

Posted by jlubans on September 28, 2015

Caption: Gone forward.

Sorry ain’t what it used to be.” - Anonymous.
Imagine yourself back in the 3rd or 4th grade. The teacher has announced a pop quiz on last night’s homework; spelling words. You forgot to do your homework. The kid next to you is a brainiac and, hallelujah, you can see her answers. Shortly after, the teacher catches you cheating. As your punishment, the teacher tells you to apologize to the class.

Apology 1: “I am sorry for what I did. For those of you who might have been offended by my actions I am truly sorry. It won’t happen again. Going forward, I want to be better prepared for class so that I am not tempted to cheat.

Or, Apology 2: “I am sorry I got caught. It won’t happen again. As you all know, this is not who I am.
Going forward, I can’t wait to get to recess and out on the playground.”

Of course, little kids don’t use phrases like “going forward” nor should they. Well, neither should adults. I’ll explain why later.
The two apologies approximate what we hear from grown ups. Apology 1 is better than #2, but it still strives to limit one’s guilt to only those who “might have been offended” – the bad is in the eye of the beholder not in what you did.
Apology 2 strips away the veneer of fake contrition.
Going forward is used in both these apologies in the same sense as it is used in the corporate setting: “I am done with the apology and it is time for you (the audience) and me to move on.”
So, what’s your problem with going forward, John?
Here’s my issue: First off, the phrase is no longer effective. Like “thinking outside the box”, “paradigm shift”, “win-win”, “tipping point”, “ROI”, and countless other buzzwords, the term “going forward” is a tone-deaf cliché, it turns off the listener. Spavined, it signifies nothing and probably never did. (To talk like a corporate pirate, go here.)
Worse, there’s a tacit meaning behind going forward, i.e. a new start, a new beginning. This unintentionally amusing corporate double entendre might help make my point:
“The Seattle Times reported that (Boss X) sent a companywide message calling his (insensitive) remark ‘a joke gone bad,’ and said ‘I should have used different words, and I apologize for them. I will definitely be more careful going forward.’" (Emphasis added.)
Going forward is used to segue away from the incident – it is now, according to the apologizer, old news and should be forgotten. Get over it!
However, that undercuts the effect of the apology. It is not your role to proclaim that you are moving on. The people to whom you are apologizing get to decide about your going forward or not. Your claim to going forward looks just like what it is: an arrogant leap ahead of your contrition.
Instead of ending your apology with a request for forgiveness you are assuming you’ve been forgiven or, more likely, that there’s nothing to forgive.
Silence is what should follow a request for forgiveness. If there’s any forgiveness to be had, you are not the one to grant it! If you are genuinely contrite, you have to trust that those to whom you’ve apologized will indeed forgive, maybe not right then and there, but some time down the road. Certainly, if you’re not taken away in handcuffs, you should continue to do your job; just show some humility.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of La Verne
Elvin and Betty Wilson Library, La Verne, CA United States

Copyright © John Lubans 2015

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