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Paul P. Baard's Motivation Matters: Restoring drive after a major misstep

July 22. 2018 11:44PM

When things are going well with an important client, all is great. That would be a good time to undertake new initiatives, while working on improving efficiency and continuing to learn about each other’s businesses.

But what happens should a major breach occur, such as missing a key deadline or delivering a defective product, where you and/or your company made a mistake ... a big mistake? Just to give a sense of the many sources of missteps we can make, I quote a partial list of synonyms from the Meriam-Webster Thesaurus: miscalculation, misjudgment, slipup, blunder, fumble, gaffe, lapse, foul-up, miscue, misconception, misconstruction, misimpression, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, bungle, oversight ... The list goes on. And with today’s hyper-expectations, fueled often by the zealous selling one can see in a highly competitive environment, there is a real vulnerability to err.

When mistakes occur, one problem to be addressed is the psychological dynamic beneath the surface, both in your client and in yourself. “But I trusted you” are painful words to hear. At the same time, we — as supplier of a product or service — are dealing with our own anxieties, including the “What ifs.” “What if this results in the loss of a major piece of business?” “What if this affects my standing in the company?”

Finally, who will be the focus of the inevitable blaming that gets triggered? Mistakes happen, especially at times of high productivity. In a healthy organization, workers should be encouraged to bring these to management’s attention without fear of reprisal.

Taking a systems approach, i.e., not just putting a Band-Aid on the problem, makes the most sense. Years ago, one car maker came up with an innovative approach to reduce the number of defects at their source. They modified their production process to allow workers to stop the entire production line when they detected a systemic mistake. This remarkable step had great success in reducing costs and delays, while improving overall quality.

It is when things go wrong, particularly when we committed the error, where careful thought and often extraordinary effort are needed to restore goodwill. Fear of negative consequences, such as having a customer cancel its business relationship or having the client contact your firm’s top executives to complain about you, can trigger irrational behavior leading to attempts to cover up, to minimize the consequences of the error, or to shift blame to someone else. “Blame-storming” often occurs due to generalized anxiety.

In the case of a severe error, there are deliberate steps which can be taken to improve the odds of repairing the relationship:

1. Go to the offended party and own the problem (if accurate, of course). Your physical presence at the client’s offices, especially if the firm’s location is out of town, communicates volumes about your sincerity. Going eyeball to eyeball, shaking hands and getting a personal read about how this business executive feels, is superior to a phone call, or even a video conference.

2. Communicate the extraordinary effort that you have made, or are willing to make, in order to make amends and to help to restore the relationship. This may take the form of some special research you will do, laying out new procedures, offering compensatory services, etc.

3. Do not minimize the negative impact to the offended one. The tone of your comments should be one of humility, including assurance of what, specifically, is being done to minimize the reoccurrence of the problem. This is no time for clichés or contemporary jargon, e.g., “Oops, my bad” or “No problem.” Avoid sounding hyperbolic, as in, “I can assure you that this will never happen again.” (Note: One cannot guarantee the future or the actions of another. Besides, you do not have a lot of credibility at this point.) Stick to reality, namely that your company has put into place safeguards to maximize the likelihood that the error will not be repeated. I once brought along a copy of the new internal memorandum from top management to all personnel involved with the new policy.

4. Do not overreact to a provocation. If you or your firm is disparaged coarsely, for example, rather than get defensive acknowledge the obvious frustration you are witnessing. “I understand the anger you must be feeling due to the error we made. Please be assured we are committed to making the situation right.”

Allow time for healing to occur. Reminder: Oftentimes, when a fissure occurs in a relationship and is overcome, the bond becomes even stronger. And, yes, sometimes, the damage is irreparable, but then there are always lessons to take away for the future. Missteps will happen. How they are handled is a measure of an effective executive.

Dr. Paul P. Baard is an organizational psychologist, specializing in motivation, with Fordham University, a former senior line executive in the television industry, and the lead author of a book on leadership and motivation. He and Veronica Baard, a former managing director responsible for HR at a major international investment banking firm, head up Baard Consulting LLC, a firm in the greater Boston area, focusing on motivation, conflict reduction, and team building. Questions are welcomed at


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