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Secret 37: What to Do If You've Screwed Up

Trying to do damage control too quickly will usually make a bad situation worse. Here's what to do instead.

My new book, Business Without The Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know, is being published this week, so my posts are condensed excerpts from it.

Screwing up is part of life. Even great geniuses make mistakes. When you do screw up, however, what's important isn't the screwup (that's history) but what you do afterward. Here's a step-by-step approach:

1. Take a deep breath.

The moment you realize you've made a big mistake is usually not the best time to take action to correct it. Any action you take when you're in panic mode is likely to make the problem worse.

For example, suppose you blurt out in a meeting with your boss and Customer A that your company gave Customer B a huge discount. You immediately realize that bringing up that discount means Customer A will probably demand a similar discount.

Trying to recover on the spot is a bad idea. If you tell the customer, "Of course, big discounts aren't our usual policy," you'll only call more attention to the discount. Same thing if you apologize to your boss the moment the two of you leave the meeting.

So take a deep breath, shake yourself out, maybe go for a short walk. Get a little distance from the situation before you react.

2. Take a dose of perspective.

Although your blunder may seem monumental to you, it may be far less significant to the other people involved.

If your mistake is uncharacteristic, chances are that people who already know you will simply put it down to your having a bad day. That doesn't mean you don't need to make amends, but the situation may be less dire than you assume.

Remember that, in the grand scheme of things, your huge, embarrassing mistake is insignificant.

3. Do a reality check.

Now that you've gotten some distance and perspective, revisit your blunder with the other people who witnessed it. Find out how much damage has been done by putting your inquiry in the form of a question, like:

  • "John, when I reacted negatively to your idea earlier today, I think I might have been overly harsh. I want to make certain you know that I'm not trying to be a pill and that my heart is in the right place."

Reality checks are best delivered via email rather than in person, because email gives everyone the opportunity to cool down.

4. Apologize and address the blowback.

The response that you get from your reality check in the previous step lets you gauge what you'll need to do to get beyond the mistake. For example, if the response is something like "You screwed up badly, you jerk," some groveling may be in order.

On the other hand, if the response is more like "Yeah, I was offended/angry/surprised, but it's no big deal," your apology can be more perfunctory:

  • "John, I'm really sorry that I overreacted and would like to meet with you to apologize in person and make a commitment to never allow myself to act that way in the future."

Shortcut: When you've screwed up

  • DON'T try to fix things immediately; take some time to think.
  • REMEMBER that eventually nobody will care what happened.
  • FIND out how seriously you screwed up.
  • MAKE apologies but focus on fixing the results.

Excerpted from the book Business Without the Bullsh*t by Geoffrey James. © 2014 by Geoffrey James. Reprinted by permission of Business Plus. All rights reserved.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: May 12, 2014


Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for, is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed more than a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for the free weekly Sales Source newsletter.

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