How Do You Recover from a Screw-Up?

The new product is due for delivery within a few days.  Right at the last minute you discover that someone on the team has really messed up.  This mistake may cost you the successful delivery which would mean we’re all going to take a serious hit.

So, what do you do?

I have learned through the years that your immediate reaction to any screw-up can make the difference between a disaster and potentially a positive experience.

The worst thing we can do is get angry – or at a minimum, show our anger. We can’t let our anger show to the team nor especially to the person who’s responsible. Anger does nothing for anyone and more importantly, it will put everyone on their heels and on guard.

I will admit that this is not the easiest thing for me to do. My immediate reaction is typically driven by my anger and I have to do my very best to keep it stifled.

Great communicators always reflect on the audience and how we are going to react to their information.  The same approach holds true in this scenario.   Great leaders will immediately tend to the ‘culprit’ (not a great word but we will go with it) asking themselves: how does this person feel right now. If it was intentional – this is something very different and a topic for a future blog post.  But our screw-ups are not typically intentional.  The culprit(s) are not feeling good about this, are nervous about yours and others’ reaction and they are usually deeply concerned about the end results.  Understand this and your approach to the screw-up should change dramatically.  This is the time you want to ensure that we are all safe and sound and understand that nothing life-threatening is happening here.

Once we get over this hump, it is time for a course correction. Candor and honest conversations need to happen immediately so that you can recover as best as possible. All hands on deck, regardless of what went on in the past.  Let’s get this thing fixed.

Recovering from a screw-up is easy when we are all in the same boat and rowing in the same direction.

The risk to all of this is the finger-pointing and laying blame. This can’t happen.  If your culture allows this to occur, you, as a leader, need to deal with it immediately.  Finger-pointing and laying blame cannot be tolerated. Everyone needs to understand that they were in this position years ago when they messed up or they might be in this position tomorrow.

So, when there’s a big screw-up, stop and plan your first few steps carefully:

  • attend to the culprit to be sure they are all right and onside with the fix
  • do whatever it takes to be sure that the finger-pointing and blame laying is minimized
  • seek advice from key people and coaches
  • gather the team together to plan the recovery
  • find ways to turn the bad news into good news going forward


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