The Delicate Art of Gracefully Recovering From a Verbal Blunder

Knowing how to walk it back when the tongue slips is key to avoiding the worst consequences to career and reputation.

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By David Maxfield


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Sarah was hired as a sales lead in a retail store. Within a month, both store managers quit. Sarah and another colleague were left to run the store with zero training or management support during the busy holiday season. Exasperated, Sarah emailed the regional manager to say they were "understaffed and overworked" and "the situation needed to be dealt with immediately." The next day, the regional manager reprimanded Sarah for her "hostile" tone and "gross insubordination." Most damaging to the business, the regional manager also told Sarah the possibility of any support was "out the window."

Our latest research shows nearly everyone either has been in Sarah's shoes or witnessed a similar catastrophic comment. Specifically, 83 percent of workers have witnessed a colleague say something that's had a catastrophic effect on career, reputation or business. And 69 percent admit to personally making a catastrophic comment.

No one is immune. Not even Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State. While campaigning for Hilary Clinton in the upcoming presidential election, Albright rebuked women who didn't support Clinton. "There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other!" she said. Albright endured backlash from voters and the media, and her comments shed a negative light on Clinton's campaign.

Or consider Brian Williams, who lost his job as anchor and managing editor of "NBC Nightly News" after stretching the truth about his experiences during the Iraq War. After Williams' initial suspension, more incidents of "inaccurate statements" were uncovered and his 10-year career on the program came to an end. He lost only his job but also the trust of his viewers and his credibility as a news reporter.

Related: Next Time You Apologize, Say More Than 'I'm Sorry'

Putting your foot in your mouth is easy. But some comments are far more damaging than others. We asked 780 respondents to share their stories and help us learn whether just any slip of the tongue could be fatal. Here are their top five career-killing comments:

  1. Suicide by feedback. You thought others could handle the truth -- but they didn't.
  2. Gossip karma. You talked about someone or something in confidence with a colleague only to have your damning comments made public.
  3. Taboo topics. You said something about race, sex, politics or religion that others distorted, misunderstood, took wrong or used against you.
  4. Word rage. You lost your temper and used profanity or obscenities to make your point.
  5. Reply all. You accidentally shared something harmful via technology (email, text, virtual meeting tools or another means).

While a fair amount of the stories we read outed people for their intolerable bias, flat-out incompetence or inappropriate insubordination, most comments actually were uttered by well-meaning and talented employees who'd simply had a bad day.

Given the data, we know everyone is bound to slip up or misjudge a situation now and then. To ensure our verbal blunders aren't catastrophic, but recoverable, you must master one consummate skill: the art of apology.

Here are a few ways to demonstrate your sincere regret and save your career or reputation in the process.

You said something wrong, rude or completely inappropriate.

Your apology must be clear and unrestrained. The bandage needs to be as large as the wound. If you aired your colorful disgust for your boss, a simple "I'm sorry" won't cut it. Others need to hear an apology as intense as their disgust for you at the moment.

You believe what you said, but no one in your role should've said it.

If you stated an opinion that doesn't reflect your company's position or culture, you must apologize as if you didn't believe what you said. This might sound disingenuous, but it's not. It isn't "you" who's apologizing. Instead, your position or office is apologizing on your behalf as an individual employee. You are righting the real wrong: your irresponsible lapse of judgment in realizing you don't represent your company in any way you see fit.

Related: Among EpiPen Furor, a CEO Shows How Not to Swim Against the Tide

You sent a message you shouldn't have -- to people who shouldn't have received it.

Whether it's an email "Reply all," a text or something else, digital mistakes require the most analog apology you can make. When at all possible, express your sincere regret face-to-face. Apologize both for the content of the message and for the means by which it was communicated. You must own up to both errors.

If you can't meet face-to-face, find a reasonable substitute: phone or video-chat software. It's important you see the disgust on the other person's face or hear it in his or her voice. This allows the offended person to express him- or herself and helps you apologize to the same degree you hurt or violated the individual. Then, if appropriate, go public with the apology in electronic view of all who may have been affected.

Related: How an Accidental Email Sent to 33,000 People Created a 'Reply All' Nightmare

When you learn to apologize with honesty and respect, you can take control of a catastrophic situation and right the wrong. Your job and your relationships depend on it.

David Maxfield

VP of Research at VitalSmarts

David Maxfield is author of three New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Accountability, Influencer and Change Anything. He is also a sought-after speaker, consultant to the Fortune 500, and vice president of research at VitalSmarts, an innovator in corporate training and leadership development.

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