After walking in, closing the door behind her, and giving me one of those appropriate corporate hugs she said, “I am in big, big trouble. I mean it is bad, Ryan. I have really failed.”
Then she described how she screwed up.
It was bad.
Now mind you, she is at that level in a Fortune 500 company where you never have to guess about competency. If you get to that level, you have gone through a tremendous vetting process. So for her, there was a lot more fear involved as she struggled with how to rebuild credibility.
Moreover, her boss has a reputation for being completely insensitive, harsh, and lacking in grace.
She debated as to whether or not she could fix it before anyone knew.
But when she thought through the question of what she would want her direct reports to do if they were in her shoes, she decided she would want them to tell her.
Then she flipped back.
She wondered if her boss’s reputation did not warrant that she hide the error.
Later she realized that if he ever found out, she would probably be terminated because he would feel he could not trust her again.
How many of us have been in similar shoes?
In toxic work environments, there is a high level of manipulation, covering up, blame-shifting, office politics, positioning, and often backstabbing. Toxic work environments are toxic because managers have not embraced their responsibility to create a culture where it is safe to risk for the greater good or to own our mistakes when they are made.
If you find yourself in a toxic environment, the plan that I present below will feel really uncomfortable.
I hate to say it, but if your work environment is toxic and there is no desire on the part of your superiors to move towards health, I really hope you can quickly find a place where your gifts are valued and the environment is healthy.
Fortunately for my client, despite her boss’s reputation, the overall work environment is fairly healthy.
Here is the plan that my client and I came up with. It worked for her, and I hope it works for you:
1. Fully own your mess-up, with no “marketing” whatsoever.
The conversation can open with the following: “Bob, I made a real mistake. I did X, and it cost Y. I apologize.”
Do not try to blame-shift, minimize, rationalize, or “market” what happened. Be direct. Be succinct. Fully own it. And don’t forget to apologize.
Make sure to let your boss know that you will also be owning it to whoever else is involved.
If you do not own it, know that if it is major, it will probably be discovered and your boss will be more likely to fire you because your deception has led to a breach of trust. Toyota Chairman Katsuaki Watanabe explains it best in an interview with Harvard Business Review:
“Hidden problems are the ones that become serious threats eventually. If problems are revealed for everybody to see, I will feel reassured. Because once problems have been visualized, even if our people didn't notice them earlier, they will rack their brains to find solutions to them.”
2. Give alternatives for how you think it can be resolved.
“I have a few suggestions for how to resolve it….” This part of the sentence shows them that you are coming up with options, not just the problem. It shows that you have fully owned it and that you own the ripple effect.
3. Ask them for input and collaborate to build a solid plan.
“...And I am looking for your insights to build a plan that will bring us to resolution.” This second part of the sentence encourages your boss to partner with you to solve it.
Your boss may have an initial reaction that seems negative. However, the higher up you go in a large company, the higher the emotional intelligence tends to be. So don’t be surprised if they regulate their emotions and even move towards protecting you, and showing you grace.
4. As you and your boss work to develop the plan, pay close attention to why your boss is suggesting what they are suggesting.
Hopefully, you will begin to brainstorm together as to how to handle the situation. Your boss will want to hear your options first, which will help him/her to see your heart better.
Then your boss will probably refine the option they think is best.
Seek to understand the reasons for the suggestions they are giving you. The “why” will give you insights that you will be able to use throughout your career.
You will learn how they view an issue, how to protect corporate culture, and, hopefully, how to extend grace when those under you fail.
Be sure to share how you plan to prevent yourself from making such a mistake again. Never just say, “It won’t happen again.”
Ask for their input. You can say, “In the future I will pay attention to the triggers that led me to lose my cool” (preventative), but then ask if they see things you could do that would encourage growth, like signing up for a course on how to build better work-relationships, for example.
5. Afterward, continue to prove that you’ve grown from your mess-up.
Fully commit to implementing the plan you discussed.
Execute with all you have.
Use the insights that you learned in the brainstorming session in multiple contexts.
People who have grown from mistakes don’t live in self-condemnation. Instead, they forgive themselves and enjoy the restoration they have been given. Be grateful for it. Share your gratitude with your boss and even others on the team, if it is appropriate to do so.
You are still competent and valuable. You just screwed up and proved you are human. Don’t be surprised if your boss and others pull closer to you as they see you display the humility and gratitude that come from growing through a mess-up.
You will rebuild credibility faster by having multiple small wins than one big win. So don’t look for the home run; focus instead on consistent base hits.
As an FYI, the next time I met with my client, she said her boss had done the unexpected. He really jumped in to protect her. He was completely gracious and even shared one of his own big failures.
Chew On This:
- What are you hiding that needs to be owned? What would be the consequence if it were discovered?
Ryan C. Bailey is an Executive Coach who helps business leaders develop in-demand high performing teams.