The Screw Up Post I Shouldn’t Have To Write

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Failing Better: Please Help Me Fail

Failing happens. Helping our teams to learn from failure can be one of the most vital aspects of our role as leaders. Even when the situation seems devastating, how we show up can make a tremendous difference in someone’s growth.

John Maxwell talks about this well in “Failing Forward.” In fact, I have bought many copies of his work, and have shared them over the years when the time seemed right. I have also used the concepts to help recover from my own mishaps.

Failure is the key to success. Many so-called “failures” are just steps along the journey.

But what about when we really screw up?

Here’s my first big leadership memory on the subject. It was over a decade ago a pivotal moment in my leadership development. It happened in my pajamas.

I hadn’t slept all night. I was completely stressed because I had to terminate several employees that morning for integrity violations. I fully agreed with the decision, but that did not make it much easier. I ran approaches to the meeting in my mind all night long nothing I could think to say seemed right.

Then, my husband poured me a cup of coffee and said, “look, if I was going to be fired, I would want to be fired by you.”

That was it.

I completely changed my approach. I threw away my imaginary script and just showed up.

I met with each person. I listened with my heart, and then I fired them. But then, we talked deeply about what they had learned dreams, hopes, talents, skills and next steps. I don’t know what those guys are up to now. But I do know that at the end of each meeting, I heard the same reaction, a real “Thank you.”

Since then, I have had the privilege to support many small and big fails (and consequently many small and big wins).

Stuff that can help:

  • Stay calm
  • Be calming
  • Ask a lot of provoking questions
  • Ask some more questions (look for patterns)
  • Ignite confidence
  • Listen for a clear recovery plan
  • Establish a time to check-in