It’s Fixable: Reputation Management When You Make an Error

Repair Your Reputation

Everyone makes mistakes. But what if the mistake you made costs you your reputation?

Maybe you made a social media gaffe, said something inappropriate, or someone found out you were hiding something. Maybe you violated company policy, had a conflict with a coworker, or reported out incorrect information.

Whether you’ve made a mistake at work or in your personal life that will affect you at work. Sometimes, the best course of action is to consult a professional. But for smaller mistakes, there are a few steps you can take to repair your reputation.

Just apologize.

“The first step recognizing the harm we’ve caused and enacting some sort of an apology,” says Dr. Jo-Ellen Pozner, assistant professor of management at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business. This can mean literally apologizing to the harmed or aggrieved party, or it might be apologizing to others for your behavior or having made a mistake or having lost someone’s trust. Pozner says to make sure you are empathetic, and acknowledge things didn’t turn out the way you hoped or intended.

Be a part of the solution.

However, don’t apologize unless you can do something to make the situation right. “Just stating, ‘I own it,’ or ‘I made a mistake’ without giving ideas on how to move forward feels meaningless,” Pozner said. The goal is to show you have understood and internalized what went wrong and how to make it right.

To get that apology right, take the lead on being part of the solution. “Ask if you can correct the problem you’ve caused, and even strengthen procedures preventing from happening in future,” Pozner said. “Use the mistake as an opportunity to help the larger organization and social structure in which you are operating, instead of as a reason for castigation.”

Show it’s a one-time thing.

Remind people you have demonstrated in the past your behavior has been positive, and the mistake won’t ever happen again. “One of the best ways to restore your reputation after making a damaging mistake is to demonstrate you are trustworthy and that it was a fluke rather than something indicative of a deeper-seeded problem,” Pozner says. “Most of us are trying to make our way smoothly through the world by limiting our exposure to unreliable interaction partners. People want to know we aren’t going to damage them in the future.”

Prepare for the consequences.

Sometimes, depending on the level you are at and the magnitude of the mistake you’ve made, it’s best to make a public pledge about doing better in the future. “There is a desire from people to see others go through a crucible moment where they take what has happened and suffer publicly and pay some sort of penance,” Pozner said. “There is this assumption of responsibility, this sort of reputation managementpublic trial, this fundamental public shaming.”

Pozner points out that depending on your level of visibility within and outside of your organization, these things may have to happen publicly. But if not, you can also do it privately in one-on-one meetings with applicable stakeholders.

Ask others for help.

Pozner says asking others for help can be a really powerful way to get people back on your side. She suggests things like asking for advice on what you can do better, how you can prevent the same mistakes from happening, or how you can repair the damage.

“It gives power to the person you are asking, it shows deference, and because you are asking people to give voice to your internal process, it makes them more committed to your outcome,” Pozner says. “They are not only going to be flattered you asked, but they are going to be thoughtful about what it might take, be helpful in making it happen, and going to be more forgiving about the outcome because they are committed to your success.”

Be Patient as You Repair Your Reputation

Recovering from a mark on your reputation can take time. Pozner says understanding the temperature of the organization and recognizing what it needs is imperative. Sometimes sweeping a mistake under the rug is the right thing to do if calling attention to the matter can make it worse, and can send a powerful signal that things are moving on and the mistake isn’t a big deal. Other times, she says, taking accountability is enough of a statement to get everyone else to move on.

Need more help with your reputation management? Schedule a session with an Executive Career Coach!

About the Author

Jennifer L. Grybowski has been a journalist and writer for 20 years. She has written about business, government, politics, education, and culture. She holds a MFA from Southern New Hampshire University, and also writes fiction. Connect with her at https://jlgrybowski.journoportfolio.com