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How to Regain Credibility After a Mistake

Author: Kristen Lund Date: May 16, 2014

What to do when you blew it—and your employees know it.

To err may be human, paraphrasing the famous quote by English poet Alexander Pope, but that doesn’t make mistakes any less painful and embarrassing—especially for those in leadership positions. Just ask AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, who lost his temper last summer and fired an employee on a conference call with 1,000 others listening. (Armstrong later apologized for his behavior in an internal memo.) As a small business owner, what should you do when you blow it and your employees know it?

“I believe great organizations start with great people, and how a leader responds and handles a mistake can either retain or lose really great people,” says strategic communications and public relations consultant Joel Kessel, president of Kessel Communications LLC in Columbus, Ohio. He has helped many small business owners rebuild their credibility after making mistakes. Here, he offers three tips for how to recover gracefully.

Take responsibility.

Be accountable and transparent about your mistake. “It’s imperative that the leader take ownership and never give an excuse or blame someone or something else on why the mistake happened,” Kessel says.

The best way to address a mistake depends on the situation, seriousness and people impacted. That could be a full staff meeting, a talk with senior employees or a one-on-one with the staff member affected.

Still, Kessel says to keep these universal guidelines in mind. The sooner you come clean, the better (this cuts the risk of rumors, gossip and a further breakdown in trust and morale). Apologize in person if possible, but over the phone is acceptable, too, if the people affected are far away. Finally, give your word that you’ll fix the mistake and that it won’t happen again.

Think through what’s next.

A small business owner no doubt wants a mistake to disappear as soon as possible, but rebuilding credibility takes time. Your employees may feel burned, upset or misled, but having a plan in place—and following through on your actions—is how you’ll start to regain trust.

View this time as an opportunity to lead by example and do some soul-searching. Kessel recommends asking a trusted senior employee, “Why did this happen?” and “What can I learn from it?”

Consider if you could benefit from a mentorship or a leadership coach. “[Leaders] should embrace this painful learning moment, grow from it, and become more aware of their role as a leader,” Kessel says.

Know that your mistake may be forgiven, but not forgotten.

No matter how hard you try, some people may not come around, and you may lose employees, customers or other supporters. However, many will remain loyal—and still others will join, buy from and support your company based on how you grew from the mistake and established yourself as a credible leader. 

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