If you ask any leader for the right way to handle a screw up, you’ll likely hear the following advice: admit the screw up apologize, do what you can to make it right. Try it. Tell a few leaders you just screwed up and ask for advice. Let me know if you hear something else. Leaders KNOW what to do when they screw up, but when they’re the one doing the screwing (up), many employ different tactics.
The Dark Side of Responding to Screw Ups
No leader admits to these stunts, but everyone has ugly stories of when someone else’s screw up left them, well, screwed. The juiciest ones make the news. But most of these response are cunningly subtle.
- Create a Diversion – When you screw up, draw attention to someone else’s big blunder. Look around, surely someone else is screwing up more than you. Make a big deal. Visit your local fireworks dealer. All eyes turn there, and you walk away, unnoticed, and unscathed.
- Reinvent History – It didn’t turn out the way you planned, so change “the plan.” Fuzzy recall of decisions are prime targets, revisit who and why decisions were made so they reframe you in the best light. This works great if you find yourself with a microphone or on National television.
- Stop, Duck, and Roll – Surely the most popular screw up avoiding tactic, this one works best when there’s a bus of blamers headed your way. Stay alert so others can take the blame. As a leader you’ve got too much to lose, let a few of your followers get squished, and you can help them later.
- Confuse – Works best with lots of data. Get good at excel. Pivot tables can intimidate the casual good guy. Bury your screw up so deep it will take weeks to find it. By then, folks will have moved on or grown weary of the search.
- And please – Add your favorites to the list.
The Leadership Response
When this crud happens to us, it’s easy to roll over, absorb the frustration and let it go. We take the “high road” and the behavior continues. It’s particularly tempting to let it go when it’s the powerful changing the story or confusing the game.
When we accept such responses from our team, our peers, or even those in power, we diminish our leadership and encourage these behaviors to continue. As leaders, consider when you turn your head. No response is a response. We teach by what we accept. And, by what we don’t.
When it comes to handling a crisis or faux pas, I always revert to Lanny Davis’s formula, former special counsel to President Clinton. “Tell It Early, Tell It All, Tell It Yourself.”
If you follow this formula, the crisis will go away quicker and you’ll be viewed with more respect than if you were to try and sweep it under the rug.
Steve, Great advice. An important add… “telling it yourself” is so important. Thanks as always.
Ironically my immediate thought was Clinton as well.
#5 – Change the definition of screw up. “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.” – Famous quote from Clinton.
I had a team member blow up at an insurance agent without warrant. It was disastrous for us.
Her response was something along the lines of “It depends on what your definition of ‘blow up’ is.”
I’m pretty sure shouting into the phone for 50+ people to hear and having the agent immediately call my cell phone qualifies as “blow up.”
Matt, Ohhhh… that’s a good one. Terrific #5 Thank you.
Karin, you are right on the money with this post. So many people that cover their tracks and try to shift the accountability. This should not only help leaders guard their hearts, but make everyone aware what to watch for.
Paul, Thanks so much. Good point, awareness matters from many angles.
Great, and timely, post Karin! Two key things come to mind during these situations:
1) Highlight and focus on what can be learned. Immediately attack the root problem and work to fix it so that it never happens again. You cannot change the past, but you can impact what is heading your way in the future. So own it, learn from it, and build a new plan that will prevent it down the road.
2)I use a phrase that I also try to live by: “How you get back up matters more than the fact that you fell down.”
Jonathan, Thank you. Excellent add… really digging in to understand root cause and learnings, leaves us much stronger.
Hi Karin, Your post reminds me of the following story which has many variations on the web.
It tells the story of a young assistant about to accept his first position as a city manager. He meets with the former manager and asks him for some words of wisdom. His predecessor tells him not to worry; he’s left three numbered envelopes in the desk drawer. “If you find yourself in trouble over some issue and don’t know where to turn, open envelope number one. If it happens again, remember number two and number three.”
Sure enough, after the honeymoon period with the city council, an issue arises that the young manager doesn’t know how to handle. He’s beside himself with worry and thinks he’s going to lose his job when suddenly he remembers the envelopes. He opens number one and reads, “Blame your predecessor.” At the next council meeting, he reports that the whole mess is the fault of the previous city manager. The council agrees and everything goes forward smoothly until the next crisis looms.
Again the manager thinks he’s out of options and is starting to clean out his desk when he comes across the envelopes, now starting to yellow with age. Opening number two he reads one word, “Reorganize.” At the next council meeting, he announces a bold plan to revamp the organization to meet the crisis. “Brilliant,” exclaims the council, and the manager’s career is back on track.
With experience of his own now, the manager expertly faces every challenge public service can throw at him until one day a new crisis looms that seems insurmountable. With confidence, he digs out the last envelope with the faded number three on it and reads, “Prepare three envelopes.”
Dan, Exactly. 😉 Thanks so much for sharing.
Stepping up to admit what we did wrong and how we are going to prevent it in the future are essential steps to take as a leader. Being transparent is vital as well as accountable. More importantly, the steps we take next are key to setting the tone going forward. It is always amazing to observe how some leaders just don’t get this. They try to duck and hide and this doesn’t work, especially in our social media era.
Always admit mistakes. Always learn from them. Always move forward anew. Key things for leaders to do.
Jon, Beautiful insights. Thanks so much. Yeah, it’s even more important in this social media era.
What, me screw up?
Only every other day… 🙂
Yeah, David me too…. that’s why I’ve had to get good at recovery 😉
You bring up a good point about accepting these responses from those in powerful positions. If we are truly authentic in our leadership, turning our heads and doing nothing often creates an internal conflict with our values and moral compass. We begin to carry that around with us – whether at work or at home.
Bill, I’ve gotten more brave over the years. It does make a difference, and I’ve seen it impact the game. My hope is others will call out what they see… professionally….and make a difference.
great post. Admitting you are wrong does so many things: It models responsibility, creates a safe environment for others, and establishes that perfection is not expected from anyone. A related practice is the apology. I learned that in parenting. I made lots of mistakes, but did not hesitate to admit them, and apologize.
A related topic is how we deal with mistakes.
I watched an old episode of China Beach where a nurse made a blunder. The supervising doctor resonds: WE made a mistake. Great lesson. Share responsibility with your staff for their errors. the only thing belonging under the bus is highway.
Bill, Terrific addition. I so agree. I remember distinctly the first time a boss had my back in this manner. It was years ago, but I remember every moment. It was my mistake, and he used “we.” Sure we talked about it a lot behind closed doors…. but he was in it with me when it was time to take accountability. That’s leadership that inspires paying it forward.
Excellent post. Responsibility and accountability are inseparable and increase as one climbs the ladder. Leaders accept responsibility and set the right example.
MO, So great to have you in the conversation. Thanks for extending it…. it does increase as we climb higher… and more folks are watching. I worry that as people climb, the fear of falling increases as well…. when leaders can handle mistakes at that level elegantly, everyone notices. I think many underestimate this impact.
Great post, Karin!
I love this: “No response is a response. We teach by what we accept. And, by what we don’t.”
No one wants to take responsibility…is it fear of making enemies, of bringing attention to themselves and planting seeds of doubt in their bosses, of being afraid to roll up their shirt sleeves and work on an answer?
Who knows, but the way a leader doesn’t handle a problem speaks as loud as the way they do.
Thanks as always. You do a great job of expanding the fears behind inaction. It’s easier to do nothing… at least in the short run. But at what cost?
I once heard that if a manager is smiling during a major problem or issue then he has someone to blame.
We have to be willing to take ownership of our choices, either good or bad. The buck stops with the leader. Great post!
Dan, unfortunately I know that smile. Great add. Thanks!
I whole-heartedly agree. However, the steps only work when there is a pre-existing culture of forgiveness present in an organization.
A year ago, I screwed up for the first time in my long-tenured employment, and precisely followed the four steps. I am still being shunned from the top, down. Yes, shunned. I guess I should have known about “the smile.” At this point, I think the only way to move forward is to move on. Sadly, there are not many opportunities in my area of expertise, so I wait.
Such a great post, Karin and one that many of us can relate to!
I love your point about “re-inventing history” because I have seen this a lot. When people don’t want to take responsibility for what “actually” happened they create a new story that in some way mirrors the original. I say in some way, because I see leaders introducing new characters (team members) into their revised story and then have new faces to lay the blame on.
Unless we are honest, open and transparent we can’t lead authentically. Just admit the mistake, apologize, not overly, learn the lesson and march forward. After all, even Big Bird on Sesame Street admits: “We all make mistakes.”