If there was ever a question of the value of discretion, the rise of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media outlets should end the argument. In an instant, the e-mail you wrote while angry can be forwarded to colleagues or competitors as proof of your lack of professionalism. With the help of a smartphone equipped with a video camera, your company meetings are no longer as private as they once were. In a matter of minutes, your offhand comment can become a viral storm that requires your full attention.
People make mistakes
Let me begin with the bad news. If you are a leader and you are called on to communicate often, you will make a mistake. Leaders are humans and humans err. You will say the wrong thing. Even the most disciplined person, if they are subjected to the right amount of stress and exhaustion will lose their cool. While others make mistakes in the relative privacy of a cubicle, a warehouse, in an office, or on the shop floor, your mistakes are amplified by the role you play in your organization. So what do you do when you say the wrong thing, choose the wrong action or demonstrate the wrong attitude?
Claim the blame
The first step towards rebuilding trust, when your actions have caused it to be strained or broken, is to claim the blame that is yours to claim. When you say something you regret and realize you made a mistake, whenever possible, let the person impacted know of your regret. If you are concerned that your actions might have legal implications, get the legal counsel you need to address the issue as quickly and transparently as possible. If your mistake impacted you emotionally or spiritually, it is worth the investment to get emotional or spiritual guidance from a counselor, minister or trusted friend. When leaders do not get the help needed and internalize these issues (or avoid them altogether), they often feel a growing sense of distance in their relationships. They begin to avoid opportunities to communicate with others because they do not feel confident in their role as leader.
Ask for forgiveness
The second step is to ask for forgiveness from those you have wronged. Notice that I did not say to simply apologize. If what you want is to let them know you are sorry, apologize. If what you want is forgiveness, then ask for forgiveness. The choice to forgive is up to those who have been wronged by your actions but the choice to ask for forgiveness is up to you.
Finally, move on with your life. As a leader, you will make many, many mistakes over the course of your career (in addition, you will hopefully make many, many good decisions that will enhance your life and the lives of others). For the sake of your team, and for your own sanity, you must stay focused on the present while looking to the future. It is healthy to realize you make mistakes. It is healthy to learn from your mistakes and to allow them to shape your sensitivity. It is not healthy if feelings of guilt, anger, or regret keep you from doing your job. Your role of leader is a tough one, and your words and actions are important. Resist the temptation to give up or give in when the path gets difficult. Stay positive, encouraging, and humble. You can positively shape the culture of your organization by demonstrating how to act when things do not go as planned.