If you’re in a position of leadership, chances are better than good you’re going to blow it with your people sooner or later. It’s like messing things up in your marriage. Don’t ask me how I know this, but it’s inevitable from time to time.
There are pluses and minuses to that comparison, but one benefit is that making things right with our spouses can teach us how to make things right with just about anyone.
How? I’m not a counselor, but after decades of professional and personal experience, I’ve found mending relationships involves the same basic five steps.
Let me say up front that I’ve never walked these steps perfectly, but they’ve made a huge difference in my life and leadership even when I stumble through them. And I bet they can help you make it right with your people when you blow it.
Step 1: Take Responsibility
This first step is the most important. If we blow it but we’re unwilling to take responsibility, we’re basically telling our people that making it right isn’t worth it. And that’s just another way of saying they aren’t worth it.
But that’s not true. The health of our teams is critically important to our success as leaders. Because of that, we need to put our egos on hold and be willing to take responsibility for whatever harm or hurt we’ve caused.
What about harm we haven’t actually caused? You know the expression, “You can be right or you can be happy?” Keep it in mind as we look at the next few steps.
Step 2: Don’t Be Defensive
This is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. By taking the defensive posture, we’re only preserving our egos, not our relationships. In fact, we’re actually causing serious damage.
Why? By defending ourselves, we’re essentially abandoning those we’ve hurt. We’re saying, “You’re on your own—I didn’t have anything to do with this,” and leaving them to manage the pain and disappointment alone.
Step 3: Avoid Ifs, Ands, or Buts
Now, there may be mitigating circumstances, reasons beyond our control for what happened. We all know this. But the middle of a crisis is usually not the best time to bring it up.
Why? Because there’s a fine line between explanation and excuse, and people in pain are likely to miss it.
And let’s be honest, we can miss it too. We might think we’re explaining the circumstances when really we’re just covering our rears. In the heat of the moment the distinction can get blurred.
If you’ll notice, steps two and three go back to the same fundamental problem. They deepen the division, not heal the breach.
Step 4: Express Empathy
We can’t leave our people dangling emotionally. This fourth step is when we lean back into the relationship by sharing the hurt. And this is what starts to close the breach.
Our teams won’t feel alone in the hurt if we identify with what they’re feeling and share it. Instead they’ll see (and hopefully feel) that we truly get the pain we’ve caused and are present with them in it, rather than turning away to protect and console ourselves.
Taking responsibility enables this step to occur. When we’re defensive or passing the guilt, we’re driving a wedge between us and our people.
Step 5: Ask Forgiveness
Once the breach has been closed, it has to be sealed with forgiveness. But of course it takes more than asking. It takes an answer, and only our teams—the people we’ve hurt—can do this part. We can take responsibility and lean in, but they have to honor that and reciprocate.
This doesn’t mean we’re off the hook if they’re unable to extend forgiveness. It only means more restorative work is needed.
The good news is that if we value our people enough to work for that restoration instead of fighting to protect ourselves, they probably won’t withhold it. It’s in everyone’s best interest to heal and get onto better things.
I believe most relationships are easily fixed if we have the courage to stop defending our own egos. Anybody can damage a relationship. But it takes courage to fix one—the courage to reach out beyond ourselves to the people we’ve hurt.
The good news is that we have what it takes. If you’re leading a small organization or a large one, you’ve already got all the courage you need. The only question is whether you’ll use it to make things right when you need to.