How to Handle Mistakes:

Sorry Key Shows Online Apology Or Regret   

      Admit nothing, deny everything, and make counter-accusations (not!)

I didn’t see much press uproar last month after Southwest Airlines grounded nearly a quarter of their fleet because they hadn’t conducted required inspections on a backup system, resulting in over a hundred cancelled flights.

I wondered why it didn’t reach the media screech most companies get for public safety compromises (think GM’s ignition and Nissan’s break switch lawsuits). Could it be because they caught it themselves, admitted fault to the appropriate oversight, presented a plan to fix it and then did?

I won’t get started on my disdain for mainstream media, but would it be too absurd for me to believe Southwest actually handled this correctly, and so there wasn’t much chum in the water to feed the media?

Let’s assume that’s the case. Is that how your organization admit mistakes? Or does it?

I’ve got the stick for a minute.

Early in my Air Force career, I was a squadron Safety Officer (an additional duty, which shows the priority leadership put on it). It was one of those thankless jobs, but one that required unquestioned integrity to be effective.

During my tenure, a boat we were carrying on our airplane vented fuel into the cargo compartment right after takeoff, which required an emergency return to the airfield. No doubt our fault, since we believed (but didn’t confirm) that the boat’s tanks were empty. I properly reported the incident to higher headquarters – and was thoroughly wire-brushed by the commander for admitting our mistake.

But we fixed our processes as a result, and it didn’t happen again.

It can be hard to admit mistakes, especially as a leader. But nothing cements the trust a leader has with followers like saying, “I made a mistake; here’s what I’m going to do to make it right.”

The alternative is the equivocation and “conflation of events” that we keep hearing about in the media, usually resulting in a scab that keeps getting picked. Or, worse yet, we don’t hear about the cover-up until it threatens the very success of the company.

It’s really not that complicated to admit a mistake, but there seems to be a palpable resistance in many organizations to do it. After some very unscientific research, I turned up nearly a zillion versions of How to Make the Perfect Apology. I’ve summarized them for you:

1. Act quickly.
2. Don’t cover it up.
3. Own the mistake.
4. Take the necessary steps to make it right.

It’s that simple, and my hat’s off to Southwest for getting it right this time.

What about your organization? Do you have a culture that encourages people to admit mistakes, or hide them?

It’s up to you, leaders.

You have the stick.