Avoid Major Pink Slips of the Tongue
After a particularly frustrating day at work, Ted let it all hang out on Facebook. He wrote a limerick rhyming the name of his company with a part of the human anatomy. A number of his colleagues—and even a couple customers—turned him into HR. A short time later, he was seen cleaning out his desk.
Sarah was recently hired as a sales lead in a retail store. After both her managers left, she wrote to the regional manager to let her know she was “understaffed and overworked.” The next day, Sarah was reprimanded for her “hostile” tone and “gross insubordination.” She was also told the possibility of any support was “out the window.”
Unfortunately, these examples are commonplace in the workforce. Our latest study revealed that nearly every employee has either seen or suffered from a catastrophic comment like that of Ted and Sarah. Specifically, 83 percent have witnessed their colleagues say something that had catastrophic results on their careers, reputations and businesses. And 69 percent admit to personally committing a catastrophic comment.
The Chemistry of Catastrophe
The reason a single comment can obliterate trust is that human beings are hard wired for defense. Our brains give disproportionate attention to threats – and rightly so. On the Savannah in millennia past, the cool and collected person who ignored the rustling in the bush ended up as lunch, whereas the person who leapt at every suspicious sound may have looked foolish a few times, but survived the occasions when it was a lynx that caused the sound. Mistaking a friend for a foe may ruffle someone’s loin cloth now and then, but mistaking a foe for a friend was fatal.
Our genetic inheritance from those successful ancestors causes us to enter every social situation with two questions in mind: 1) does someone here intend me harm? (what are others’ motivations?); and 2) could they carry it out? (what are their abilities?). We do this automatically, often without conscious awareness. We look at size, resources, tone of voice, body language and other small gestures that might signal pernicious motivation and ability. And here’s where catastrophic comments come into play: the data we trust the most is that which others least intended us to have.
We all know that people are often posing – manipulating the impression they give us. So when an unguarded moment happens, we tend to over-value it in assessing someone’s true disposition toward us. If someone accidently hits “reply all” – we assume that what we receive is truer than the thousand emails we got from them in the previous years. When they make a statement in the emotion of the moment – we venture that it was a moment of rare transparency—not an ephemeral upset.
Understanding what went wrong, we now understand how to set things right. If the problem is that others no longer trust us because they believe they now have incontrovertible evidence of our true character – your job is to generate doubt. You must generate persuasive evidence of your real intentions.
Putting your foot in your mouth is easy to do; recovering from verbal mistakes actually takes skill—a fact verified by our data. We found that only one in five are extremely confident in their ability to fix mistakes.
It’s in organizations’ interests as well to foster a norm of appropriate forgiveness. While some offenses require immediate termination in order to protect corporate character, many are not malignant but are part of being human. While some of us pull a Ted and intentionally seal our own fate with vulgar, disrespectful, or intolerable comments, most of us find ourselves in Sarah’s shoes. We mean well, but our presentation was sloppy. Or, maybe we even speak up about issues we see as important to the business only to be punished for our honesty. Unfortunately, in these more innocent cases, employees are still being harshly punished.
The research shows almost half of workplaces have a “one strike and you’re out” policy or don’t even allow for employee apologies or reparations. These kinds of corporate cultures are hotbeds for disengaged and disgruntled employees and shut down the free-flow of ideas and dialogue that lead to success.
So, instead of punishing employees’ candor, leaders need to build the kind of culture where anyone can safely speak up to anyone else, regardless of power or position. And in those times when an employee may step out of line, there should be a plan that allows him or her to recover and get back on track.
Just consider the case of Mary, a well-respected leader who had a wealth of institutional knowledge and relationships with important clients. Recently, she thought she was in a “safe” meeting where open discussion was encouraged and yet, following the meeting, she found herself in hot water for some of the comments she made. Realizing her mistake, she quickly apologized to her boss for speaking out of line given her position in the company. While this went on her record, her quick apology saved her job and the company benefited from keeping such a valuable resource.
The Bandage Must Exceed the Wound
Catastrophic comments may leave you red-faced, but they don’t have to lead to a pink slip. If you are willing to step up to the size of the problem you’ve created, there is a reasonable chance of restoring trust. Once again — your task is to generate compelling evidence that others should doubt their newfound doubts about you. The principle issacrifice. If in the process of making amends people see you sacrificing things they know are precious to you, you may renew their faith in your sincerity. Specifically, look for ways to sacrifice ego, time, money – and other precious priorities.
Here are five tips that address different kinds of wrongs though persuasive sacrifice:
- If you say something that is just wrong, rude or completely inappropriate—sacrifice your ego. Only a clear, unvarnished apology will suffice. And the sooner it is offered the more ego sacrifice others perceive. The longer it takes the more grudging, calculated and measured it appears. When you blow your top and say something you regret, don’t wait to apologize. The sooner you say you’re sorry the more likely it is you’ll interrupt the hurt before it hardens into a fixed judgment of you. Time is of the essence.
- When the offense is due to misunderstanding and not intent, an apology is still appropriate – but more nuanced. You must: 1) demonstrate deep empathy with the unintentional hurt. Sacrifice whatever time and ego is needed through listening so you can deeply understand – and validate—the hurt; 2) sacrifice ego by taking ownership for your role in creating the hurt; and only when #1 and #2 are addressed to the satisfaction of the offended parties, then 3) clarify your true intended meaning. If you insincerely apologize for bad intent when there was none, you risk undermining trust as you’re lying in order to fix the truth.
- When you have a lapse in judgement and say something someone in your position shouldn’t have said—even if you personally agree with what you said–your apology must right the real wrong—your misbehavior as a leader. It’s not you that’s apologizing, it’s your position.
- If what you said in the past has already hardened into a fixed judgment, there is still hope. But it will take time. Your apology should be coupled with a “forgiveness contract.” Ask the other party to specify behavior they want to see from you as evidence of your sincerity. This show of vulnerability can be a powerful trust builder. If you find their request reasonable, then get to work on “behaving your way” out of the mistrust. Be patient. Sacrifice your need for closure in order to demonstrate your enduring sense of responsibility for the harm you’ve caused. Check in periodically to request feedback and make course corrections accordingly.
- When you make an electronic mistake (email, text, etc.), don’t apologize electronically. Whenever possible, it’s best to undo the damage face-to-face. Sacrificing the time to make personal contacts shows you mean it.
When you learn how to apologize with honesty and respect, you can take control of many catastrophic situations and right the wrong. These skills put the power back in your hands to exemplify the kind of person you really are—underneath the comments. Don’t let a momentary slip of the tongue define you as anything other than someone who is honest, kind, and competent.
Joseph Grenny is a four-time New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and social scientist for business performance. His passion and expertise is human behavior and its impact on business performance and relationships. His work has been translated into 28 languages and has generated results for 300 of the Fortune 500. Joseph has been a contributing columnist for BusinessWeek, Forbes, and Harvard Business Review. He has appeared on The Today Show, CNN, Bloomberg, and Fox Business News, and been cited in hundreds of national news publications including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today. Joseph is the co-founder of VitalSmarts, an organization committed to teaching others how to effectively change human behavior.
Contact John Assunto for all of your Education Recruiting needs! Johna@worldbridgepartners.com or 860-387-0503