It happens. We’re all human. 

Everyone makes mistakes. It’s the way they’re handled that can mean success or failure to a business. Our team is no different. We work extra hard to fix problems quickly and earn back the trust of our employees or customers.

Not everyone is so conscientious. Take, for example, our soon-to-be-former payroll provider. Errors that could have been remedied quickly have now rolled into one huge epic fail.

Despite repeated requests for our year-end W-2s, they arrived 1) more than a week late, 2) ugly as hell, and 3) incorrect. Any of these would be horrible. But this was special. Our payroll report arrived accompanied by reports from other companies, complete with the social security numbers of their employees. The payroll provider missed both calls they had scheduled to discuss these errors with us, our names were frequently misspelled, and the payroll company placed blame on our employees for screw-ups in their process. Let’s say we’ve got a bit of an issue on our hands.

So, what should you do when you make a mistake?

1. Listen.  The person you let down might need to get her disappointment or anger off her chest. Just listen. Don’t make excuses. Don’t interrupt. Don’t even try to respond right away. Listen. Let it sink in. If there’s a way to repair things, you’re hearing it right now, so pay attention.

2. Own it.  You or someone on your team made a mistake. No finger-pointing. Fans of Pixar’s A Bug’s Life know Hopper’s first rule of leadership: Everything is your fault. Here, we call it falling on the sword. Sometimes, it’s the only thing you can do before starting to make it right. Be sure the person you’ve disappointed knows you understand the mistake belongs to you.

3. Be contrite.  In our business we ask consultants, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be rich?” You will not convince someone of anything else when they feel they were wronged. You might be angry. You might be embarrassed. But what you need to show the person you let down is that you are contrite and humble. Everything and anything else will not make things better.

4. Make amends.  You can offer to fix the problem or come up with perfectly good ideas about how you might patch things up. If the person wants a letter of apology to make things square, get them a personal note from a top executive. If they want a discount, do it and throw in something else they didn’t ask for. It’s the “little bit extra” that speaks volumes and may even strengthen the relationship in the long run.

Note: I’m not suggesting you let someone take advantage of the situation. There are real jerks out there. You can’t give them what they want if it’s completely unreasonable. Own the mistake, give a heartfelt apology, and extend a powerful “above and beyond” gesture.

5. Be careful.  Just because you’ve made amends, don’t think everything is back to normal again. Be even more mindful of the wronged customer and go to great lengths to ensure your product or service exceeds their expectation. Until you get an unmistakably clear signal that all is well again, stay in the penalty box. And for goodness sake, spell his or her name correctly while trying to fix the problem.

6. Learn from it.  Someone I respect says, “Always make new mistakes.” As long as you’re still a human you’re going to make mistakes, so get used to it. A true leader learns from mistakes and uses the experience to grow and change in positive ways. If you really come to understand the consequences of your mistake, then there’s a much better chance you won’t do it again.

Every mistake says, “We don’t give a damn about you,” unless you go above and beyond to prove that mistake was just that -- an extremely rare, sub-par event.

I wish I could tell you the payroll company followed these steps to repair the damage done by their errors. Heck, we’d be thrilled just to have accurate payroll, responsive account reps and our name spelled correctly on messages. I guess it’s time to find another payroll provider that will give a damn about us.