We all make mistakes. In fact, mistakes are part of life for every business and every working person. That said, a high-profile mistake by the CEO or top leader of a small to medium-sized company can inflict outsized consequences upon a company and its employees.
Consider the well-publicized turmoil at credit card processing firm, Gravity Payments of Seattle. The CEO of this 120-employee company decided to gradually increase the minimum wage at his company to $70,000. While it sounded great on the surface, the decision caused the departure of key employees and some clients, and flooded the company with media attention, resumes, Facebook posts and emails.
If you make a similarly controversial decision, how do you manage your way through it?
We recommend following four R’s to help you navigate the choppy terrain of a public failure or corporate mishap.
Be aware: Every step of the four R’s requires you to flex considerable communications muscles.
Is it any wonder the two most difficult words for leaders to express are “I’m sorry?” As difficult as it is to admit mistakes, expressing sincere regret for what happened is a crucial first step to demonstrating the kind of vulnerability that rebuilds trust and confidence with your stakeholders. Done right, apologizing for our mistakes breaks down defenses and sends a powerful message of strength and humility.
Your conversation might go like this: “I realize that my mix-up of the dates really puts your team in a bind, and I’m very sorry for the delay.”
Communicate respect and concern for those dealing with whatever consequences your actions have had. Also, give the other party a chance to voice any concerns and ask questions.
That said, be careful about over-apologizing. Too many mea culpas may make you seem insincere or weak, which will undermine your efforts.
According to Justin Menkes’ book, Better Under Pressure, truly great leaders accept ownership when things go wrong. Owning the problem communicates to others that your relationship is more important than being right. It also sets the stage for taking off the blinders and facing our flaws. While it’s not easy to own our mistakes, hiding or denying them can cause irreparable damage. Remember Watergate?
Apple CEO Tim Cook provided a good example of an apology a few years ago with his response to the Apple Maps problem: “We strive to . . . deliver the best possible experience to our customers. … We fell short on this commitment. We are extremely sorry for the frustration this has caused our customers and we are doing everything we can to make Maps better.”
While the mistake wasn’t Mr. Cook’s fault, he took full responsibility for his company’s mistake.
If your decision exposes or creates a problem, you may find your team members are encouraged to create solutions that didn’t exist before.
For example, one financial services company had to cut their workforce by 20 percent to make up for the loss of business after a product failure. Ultimately, the company was spurred to improve several processes and systems that created a leaner, stronger operation.
So, once you have identified a solution, the next step is to communicate your plan of action. Consider, what will you stop, start or keep doing to transform the situation? People are prone to be more understanding when they see you have carefully considered a viable remedy to the situation.
Start by admitting exactly what happened, why, what you’re doing to fix it and steps you have taken to prevent it from happening again. You might start out by saying, “I’m sorry the checks didn’t go out as promised. Here’s what caused the error and here’s what I’m doing to make things right as quickly as possible.”
Whether you are recovering from a minor misstep or a more serious strategic blunder, once you have communicated the way forward, it’s time to refocus your energy on the power and promise of your company’s brand. This step reinforces the message that no matter what has happened, your business remains unchanged in the areas that matter most.
For example, Gravity Payments communicated to customers that service would remain stellar, without increased fees to cover higher employee salaries, to lure back or keep several clients.
A more recent, and excellent, example of communication that hits all four Rs: The extremely clear, direct apology issued by Michael Horn, head of the Volkswagen Group of America, after the company was caught cheating on emissions tests. “Our company was dishonest … we have totally screwed up. We have to make things right with the government, the public, our customers, our employees … We are committed to do what must be done and to begin to restore your trust.”
Remember, we all make mistakes. If you don’t, you’re probably not taking enough risks. If you practice the four R’s, add a dash of courage and a heaping dose of communication, you’ll become a master at recovering from even the worst blunders.
Need more support as your company grows? Read our free guide: HR Outsourcing: A Step-by-Step Guide to Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs).