Correcting Leadership Communication Mishaps
Virtually every leader has messed up at some point by saying the wrong thing even with the best of intentions.
If an entry-level employee utters the wrong thing, chances are all the person has to do is express regrets to one person and all's well again. But the higher up someone is on the organizational chart, the more damage can be done by misspeaking. Which means that if leaders slip up and say the wrong thing by mistake, they should prepare themselves for multiple meetings, memos and public apologies.
It's not hard to find recent examples of corporate leaders putting their foot in their mouth. Donald Sterling has been pressured to sell the Los Angeles Clippers after his racist remarks were publicized and Lululemon founder Chip Wilson resigned as chairman after remarking that "some women’s bodies just don’t actually work” for the company's pants.
And last week TV show host and author Dr. Mehmet Oz was asked to answer questions in a congressional hearing to explain his comments and endorsements of certain weight loss products on his show.
Being in front of the public means being under scrutiny. The words of anyone in a leadership post will be dissected and scrutinized more than anyone else's. A leader's intentions may be good, but sometimes the wrong words are used to express something. When facing the predicament of having to backtrack and explain ill-advised comments, try the following strategies to navigate through:
1. Be absolutely clear. Many people end up being misinterpreted after speaking in shorthand. They cut to the chase too soon. They reference bullet points or the bottom line, thinking this will be more efficient. While that form of communication might be effective in a quick note, it can easily backfire when used in meetings and speeches.
So if someone has taken a comment in the wrong way, actively listen to the grievance -- and expand upon the shortcut statements. Unfold the original comments and expose the layers underneath them.
2. Explain the underlying intention. In his book Creativity, Inc., Pixar president Ed Catmull described the day he announced to his entire company that Disney was acquiring the firm: “I stood up and assured them that Pixar would not change. It was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever said.”
What Catmull meant was that he and his executive team had worked hard to protect Pixar’s culture in the agreement with Disney. He gave a shortcut description, saying that things “would not change,” and his staff took his words literally.
But change is hard to avoid and when employees in Pixar noticed changes (of any kind), they countered, “You said that Pixar would never change.”
Catmull could have made the mistake -- as many leaders do -- of digging in his heels and wagging his finger at his employees, saying, “You guys misinterpreted me. That’s not what I meant!” Instead, he took responsibility for his ill-chosen words and explained the original intention behind the statement.
That's the path other leaders should pursue: Step back and clarify the intention.
Related: How to Admit When You're Wrong
3. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Catmull said that it took three more company speeches to explain his “not change” comment before it finally sunk in. Who knows how many private meetings were held?
So after a slipup, be prepared to repeat the corrected message multiple times. Remember each time to not look frustrated at having to explain something again. If it's necessary to do the rounds to make amends, then do so. Appearing agitated negates apologetic words and corrective statements.
It is said that for every negative statement, there should be six positive ones. People need repetition to rewire their perspective. After a flubbing of the words, multiple corrections may be needed to fix the mistake. Repetition is critical to a correction by leadership.
Build up stamina and be prepared to repeat: The inconvenience will be worth it, considering the problem at stake.