It seems our society has turned dodging responsibility into an art form. From celebrities who insist that a brush with the law was all a big misunderstanding to political figures who use spin and double-speak to blame everything on the other side, no one wants to admit it when he or she messes up. If you’re a business leader, the temptation to use this strategy is huge. After all, your customers are paying you to get it right, so the last thing you want is for them to know that you’ve made a mistake, right?
Maybe not. When your company admits to mistakes in a constructive way, you won’t damage your brand in the way you feared. In fact, you have a valuable opportunity to gain respect and loyalty.
You and your company are not judged by how well you do when you’re good, but by how well you do when you’re bad. The fact is, everyone — and every company — makes mistakes. Denying that they have happened usually exacerbates and magnifies an already awkward situation because, chances are, you aren’t fooling anyone and you appear insincere.
In fact, in a very real way, trying to dodge responsibility can hurt your reputation more than simply owning up to the mistake in the first place.
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I speak from experience. Bonnie Harvey and I are the founders of Barefoot Cellars, the company that transformed the image of American wine from staid and unimaginative to fun, lighthearted, and hip. And when we started the company in the laundry room of a rented Sonoma County farmhouse, we knew almost nothing about winemaking or the wine business.
In our upcoming book, “The Barefoot Spirit,” we share how we made many mistakes over the years as the business grew. Some of them even caused us to worry that Barefoot might not survive. So early on, Bonnie and I made a conscious decision to confront our mistakes and to view them as opportunities to learn and grow. I believe that attitude is part of what ultimately made Barefoot Cellars successful.
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Honestly and humbly admitting to missteps, we found, often diffuses a tense situation instead of exacerbating it. And as time passes, they say, people tend to remember more clearly how you handled the mistake as opposed to what it was.
If you’re ready to face up to your company’s mistakes and turn them into building blocks, read on for five of my suggestions on handling your next business “my bad.”
Cop to it. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to admit your company did something wrong. Uttering that mea culpa involves swallowing your pride and acknowledging that you are not, in fact, perfect (which is an illusion that our culture encourages us to zealously cultivate). But the sooner you admit to the error, the more you reduce the drama … and the faster you can move on to the next, more important stage: what you are going to do about the situation.
People actually like a little imperfection now and then. It demonstrates a level of authenticity, vulnerability and humanity, with which we all can identify. Plus, it’s harder to be angry with someone who says, “You’re right — I messed up,” than with someone who insists the fault doesn’t lie with him … even though you know it does. And it’s difficult — if not downright impossible — to make any constructive progress if the responsible party refuses to admit there’s a problem.
Recognize how it happened. If you admit fault but then put the incident behind you, guess what? You’ve just increased the chances that it will happen again. It’s very important to investigate how and why an error occurred, so you can fix the faulty procedure or process. That’s why Barefoot made sure employees weren’t afraid to make or report mistakes. (That is, those involving technical errors. I am adamant that bad behavior or an inability to perform should not be overlooked.)
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Basically, our approach to mistakes was to say, “Congratulations! You found a new way to screw up, and that’s a good thing. We didn’t know that this could happen, but now that it has, we can keep it from happening again.” Then we would brainstorm what went wrong and make technical adjustments. Honestly, I think that large, siloed organizations where you can be demoted, passed over or even fired for a mistake are missing the boat. That’s because real progress in progressive companies is often built on the backs of mistakes and the improvements they spark.