Snatching Victory from the Jaws of Defeat
In 1999 I took a new job as a Group Publisher. They moved me to New Hampshire. The company had just acquired some new technology magazines located in Chicago. Upon sealing the deal they promptly fired a bunch of people and moved most of the operations to New Hampshire. The people remaining were pissed off.
The people in New Hampshire now had new work they didn’t want and weren’t getting paid extra for dumped in their laps. They were pissed off.
The biggest issue of the year was in production during this transition. It came off the press just as I came on board. My phone was ringing off the hook. Virtually every ad was wrong. The customers were pissed off.
Mistakes had been made.
Twice in my career I’ve taken over decimated sales territories. One had been empty for six months. Over the prior three years there had been three sales people who had come and gone. Customers had been ignored and abandoned.
In the other, the previous guy had developed the habit of un-zipping his fly and setting his genitals on the receptionists’ desks. Customers wanted to be ignored and abandoned.
Mistakes had been made.
The first several months of these jobs consisted mostly of people screaming at me. They were pissed off. They were right to be pissed off. I was thrilled. What wonderful opportunities these were. Like my boss said after we heard about the last guy exposing himself:
“Jim, if you can just keep your fly zipped you’re gonna be a hero.”
“This I can do,” I said.
Somewhere along the line we have become terrified of mistakes. Few things generate more energy than people trying to avoid blame when they happen. Few things make a person look worse than trying to dodge responsibility.
Frequently the mistake itself is not so irritating as the refusal to admit and address it. The seemingly endless scandals infuriate the public all the more when our politicians dive for cover and assert “My twitter account was hacked.” “I did not have sex with that woman.” “It’s not my fault.”
From childhood we learn to avoid accepting responsibility for fear of punishment. Yet what parent has not been more horrified to find their child lying to them than by the transgression itself? How much more impressed would we be with the child who said “Yes, I did it.” But that’s not what we teach them.
We all make mistakes.
We all at times are called on to clean up the mistakes of others. The only people who never make mistakes are those who never do anything. If you are actively engaged in life you’ll make your share. If you’re lucky you’ll be called on to deal with those made by others. There is no better chance to shine, no better chance to win friends, no better chance to be a hero.
What we need is a positive, effective way to address the situation when it happens. Here is a simple plan to survive, repair and even benefit from mistakes; yours and those around you. It’s what worked for me.
1) Identify it. Mistakes usually make themselves obvious at some point, but it is critical that you clearly understand what happened, how it happened and what the impact will be. The earlier the better.
2) Admit it. If it is all or part your fault take responsibility. Take more than your share. People will respect you for it and the truth may well be obvious. Don’t waste time trying to cover up and deflect blame. It only delays the solution and un-corrected mistakes get worse with time. It increases the anger and hostility. Don’t make excuses. Don’t get mired in self-justification.
3) Listen. The opposite of love isn’t hate. It’s disinterest. Anger isn’t the problem; it is the opening for the solution. If people are angry they are still engaged. They still want things to be better. Hope is lost only when they no longer care. Anger is a cry to be heard. To have their complaints acknowledged. To have the wrong made right. To do this you must listen. If the person doesn’t feel heard you can correct the mistake and still lose the relationship. Spend lots of time here.
4) Apologize sincerely. Maybe repeatedly. People will need to vent their frustrations. Listen. Maintain your professionalism. Apologize again and move on to solving the problem. Never let yourself get defensive. It only increases tensions, damages relationships and trust, and delays finding solutions. Repeat step #3 as necessary.
5) Damage Control. Take all the energy you saved by taking prompt responsibility and focus it here. Correct the mistake and repair the damage.
6) Analyze it. Anybody can make a mistake. That’s OK. It is not OK to make the same one twice. You must carefully analyze the mistake to understand what caused it. Walk through the events that led up to it. Consider what actions could have prevented it, or made it worse. To avoid the same mistake in the future you must clearly see the problem.
7) Take corrective measures. Once you fully understand what happened and why, you can make the necessary operational, procedural or behavioral changes needed to prevent a reoccurrence. There is a famous story of an executive whose mistake cost his company 10 million dollars. Called into the boss’ office he fully expected to be fired.
“Fire you?” his boss said, “I just invested $10,000,000 in your education!”
One beautiful spring afternoon in Arlington, VA a few years back I was sitting on the patio of a Starbucks nursing a coffee and going over some notes. My cell phone rang. It was Tom Jackson. Tom is one of the nicest men I’ve ever met. He was a customer then and remains a friend today.
But I cringed. We had made mistakes with Tom’s account. Multiple mistakes. We made mistakes on the corrective measures. And on the measures to correct those. We were relentlessly jamming a stick in his eye.
He was exasperated. I was exasperated. Nothing seemed to work.
“You guys did it again,” he said. He told me all about it. It was very bad. We talked a long time.
“Tom,” I said “I don’t know what to say.”
“If we had done this to one of our customers they would have stopped speaking to us a long time ago,” he said.
“I know. You’re right. I’m surprised you are still willing to talk to me,” I said. I didn’t know what else to say. Sometimes you just have to be brutally honest.
“So am I,” he said.
After we rang off I called my boss and left him a detailed voice mail. I ended by saying: “If we really can’t get this right just tell me. I’ll let Tom know we are simply too incompetent to handle his business. I can stop wasting his time and mine.” Maybe I was hoping he’d fire me.
He didn’t and I don’t know what he finally did, but it worked. Sometimes you just have to be brutally honest.
Admitting, correcting and apologizing for a mistake is never easy. Mistakes are inevitable. But properly handled you will never make the same one twice. You will learn from experience and increase your stature as a person willing to accept responsibility and committed to finding solutions.
Those are rare and valuable qualities indeed.
One last thing. Want to know the foolproof key to a successful relationship? Memorize this phrase:
“You are absolutely right. You were right all along. You are absolutely right and I’m wrong.”
Use it often. You’ll choke on the words, at least the first few times. I know I did and do. But the results are stunning.
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