Making a Mistake Blows

You stepped in it this time.

But the “Right” Apology Can Salvage Your Reputation

By Yvonne Milosevic

Why do we hate it when we’re wrong? Researchers Caroline Bartel of the McCombs School of Business and Jane Dutton at the Ross School of Business think the reason lies in the fact that the mistake threatens our self-identity.

Everything we say and do reflects how we see ourselves and how others perceive us. The carefully crafted image you’ve projected as an expert in X or the go-to person for Z suffers a painful blow when you F-up.

In her piece about mistakes for Harvard Business Review, Deborah Grayson Riegel writes that the situation only gets worse when you’ve convinced other people to get on board with your plan—and it turns out a bust.

Now, she says, you’re faced with an “identity granting” problem. “You may have seen yourself as a smart cookie, but if those around you don’t — or they did and now they don’t — the identity that you chose for yourself hasn’t been affirmed by others,” Riegel explains.

Often, we then become defensive or play the blame game. In the eyes of your colleagues, boss, or clients, this further compounds the damage. Don’t make a bad situation worse by delaying or avoiding acknowledgment. Instead, follow this apology protocol when your self-identity/status is on the line.

Accept real responsibility for the error.

For many of us, this is the most challenging step. When you own the mistake and acknowledge its negative impact, you convey sincerity and courage to the other person(s). Avoid statements that deflect responsibility, Riegel advises. Don’t try to minimize liability with remarks such as, “It didn’t turn out the way I had anticipated,” or “mistakes were made.”

Take action to repair any damage.

People are usually a lot more willing to forgive if you show that you plan to rectify the situation ASAP. If relevant, explain how you will avoid a similar slip-up in the future.

Also, demonstrate a willingness “to address the substantive impact (money, time, processes, etc.) and the relational impact (feelings, reputation, trust, etc.) of the mistake,” Riegel suggests. “Be open to feedback about what you’re doing,” she adds.

Make sure you follow through with your stated plan to remedy the situation. If you don’t, the apology is meaningless. Worse, your reputation might suffer irreparable damage.

Learn and move on.

Riegel says you’ve got to do some soul searching after a big mistake, even if you hate self-reflection. We all screw up sometimes. Think about how you might avoid this problem in the future. The best we can do is to find the lesson in it and move on.

Apologies are awkward and uncomfortable, and no one likes making them. Apologizing with grace shows that you care about other people’s feelings and how your actions affect them. If done right, the threat to your “self-identity” might be mercifully brief.