5 Steps to Reclaim Your Credibility After You Screw Up


Gwen Moran

February 3, 2014

We hear a lot about importance of embracing failure and learning from our mistakes. But just try making a typo that ships 1,100 units to your customer instead of 100 or hitting Reply All on a mass email with sensitive info meant only for your boss. Then, all of those lofty concepts seem to go out the window.

You blew it. And now you need to regain your credibility so people trust you again.

They’re going to want an apology–and not one of those fake, “I’m sorry if you were offended,” mea culpas.

If it was a mistake made in good faith or one-time error in judgment rather than something deeply immoral or illegal, you can turn it around and possibly even make a mistake work for you. People generally want to trust their leaders and co-workers, says Supriya Desai, CEO of ASC Advisory, an Edgewater, N.J., management consulting firm. Here’s how to perform reputation triage after a blunder.

Step One: Own it.

Playing the blame game or dodging responsibility is only going to make it worse. Instead, admit your mistake and face up to the consequences.

“People want to see you own it. They want to see you say, straight-up, ‘I did it and I regret having done this,'” she says.

Step Two: Apologize.

If you’ve caused pain or headaches to the people around you, they’re going to want an apology–and not one of those fake, “I’m sorry if you were offended,” mea culpas that puts responsibility for the transgression on others. Be specific in your acknowledgement so that people know you really understand the problem, she says. If you sent a snarky reply meant for a friend to your entire department, people want to know that you understand the problem isn’t that you sent the email, but that you were duplicitous and mean to begin with.

Step Three: Look for–and communicate–improvements.

Once you’ve owned up to the mistake and apologized, try to figure out how it happened and how such errors can be avoided in the future, says Iqbal Ashraf, CEO of Mentors Guild, a Honolulu, Hawaii, consulting network that matches professionals to with businesses to solve problems and foster growth. Ashraf says it’s important to consult the people who were affected by the mistake and look for ways to improve.

For example, if an order was sent through for the wrong products, consider having someone double-check the SKU numbers on big orders. If the annual report was printed with a 72-point typo on the cover, review the writing and design process and possibly add in a proofreading step. When you put solutions in place, “let other people know about them so they see you took the situation seriously and are committed to improve,” Ashraf says.

Step Four: Stop the self-flagellation.

Mistakes and missteps can be embarrassing, and it’s easy to get mired in beating yourself up. But no one wants to hear the 20th bout of sorry-laden self-loathing. You admitted it. You apologized. You tried to make it right and ensure it never happens again. Now, it’s time to move on and focus on the future, Ashraf says. Apologizing repeatedly can be a sign of weakness and actually hurt your credibility, Desai adds.

No one wants to hear the 20th bout of sorry-laden self-loathing.

Step Five: Learn From It.

Mistakes have a way of feeling less overwhelming when you get some distance from them. Depending on the type and severity of the mistake, you may be able to use the experience help others learn, Desai says. After a colleague had some communication issues with his team members during a period of layoffs, employees had some negative feelings about how he was communicating with his team. Several months after he went through the steps of admitting his mistake, apologizing and making the situation better, he began talking about the communication issues with other leaders in the company to help them avoid the same mistakes.

“At that point, he had a much-improved situation in terms of relations with employees, so he could point to that and say, ‘Facing what I had done was really important. Here’s a positive that came out of it, so I encourage you to do the same because you also can have a positive result,'” she recalls.

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