Okay, So You’ve Messed Up

Recently I found myself in a bit of hot water. My well-intentioned attempt to keep a fast-moving situation from getting out of hand was perceived as excessively curt, even crossing the line into rudeness-land.

I learned about this gap between my good intentions and the negative perceptions after the fact through honest feedback I received from someone who was present when it happened.

Learning that you may not have been as gracious as you’d like to be and in fact may have caused some upset is not a pleasant experience, and all the more so for someone who speaks and writes about incivility.

I did my best to remedy that situation, which got me thinking more broadly about strategies to implement when we’ve messed up and need to do some repair work. Here goes:

  1. If you suspect that you missed the mark, seek feedback. Sometimes you get an inkling that something didn’t come across well—a subtle physical reaction from the other person, a facial expression, a silence, or even just an intuitive perception that something isn’t right. If you sense this, chances are that something indeed went awry. Seek feedback on the spot or shortly thereafter. In my case, I had a feeling right in the moment that something was “off,” but it was fleeting and I left it behind me as we all moved on to the next thing. I should have instead followed up shortly thereafter with something like, “I sense that something wasn’t quite right in the way I responded—did you have a similar perception?”
  2. Demonstrate openness and gratitude. When someone is gracious enough (or sufficiently brave) to share with you that you were uncivil or abrasive, listen carefully to what they have to say and show appreciation for their effort. I was fortunate that the person giving me the feedback was candid yet gentle, but that is not always the case. The person might provide feedback in an emotionally charged way that will trigger your defensiveness. However, this does not detract from the validity of the feedback or the need for you to demonstrate openness and appreciation. We all have blind spots so here’s our opportunity to do better.
  3. Make it a learning conversation. Ask clarifying questions to understand their perspective on what exactly went wrong. Knowing the details will help you recognize what you need to change next time. Furthermore, your questions demonstrate much-needed genuine concern for their experience.
  4. Discuss ways to fix it. What remedy will make the person feel that things have been resolved to their satisfaction? Inquire what they would like to see happen and offer suggestions of your own. For example, if the issue is that you made a disparaging comment to someone in front of others, a reasonable remedy might be that you circle back to those who were present and clear the person’s reputation with them too.
  5. Don’t beat yourself up. It’s easy to feel badly and spiral into the dark abyss of self-blame when you realize that your actions caused distress to others. Feelings of shame and regret make us human, and it’s okay to dive there for a few minutes (as I indeed did). But then get up, pull yourself together, and figure out how to fix the mess you’ve created. A good apology that clearly outlines where you erred and the impact it has had, accompanied by a sincere and specific commitment to do better, will go a long way.

None of us is perfect. But there are two pieces of good news that are not to be sneezed at: First, we can strive to do better each and every day. Second, taking action to genuinely listen, acknowledge, and correct usually has a positive impact on the other person—and on the relationship itself.

Good luck on the journey!

As always, contact me anytime.

This entry was posted in Blog, Leadership, Miscellaneous, Workplace Incivility. Bookmark the permalink.

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