“We got it wrong”: 6 steps to admitting fault in business

The past 2 weeks have seen UK budget airline Ryanair fall prey to the press in a PR nightmare as they were forced to announce mass cancellation of flights due to a pilot shortage.

Shelving up to 50 flights per day over a six-week period due to an internal error that led to over-allocation of pilot holidays has caused untold backlash. The airline will face a compensation bill of up to 20 million euro – and the brand reputational damage will, I suspect, be far more long-standing still.

However, listening to Chief Executive Michael O’Leary responding to the crisis, one thing was clear. How, and when, you admit to being in the wrong makes a significant difference. As many great leaders will testify, mistakes are inevitable in business – it’s how you respond to the situation that will set apart great leaders and organizations from the rest.

“Admitting that you’re wrong is a sign of strength,” says Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid (Hudson Street, 2013).

“It takes character and leadership to do it well.”

Using O’Leary and the Ryanair example as our scapegoat, let’s explore how organizations should (and most definitely shouldn’t) respond and communicate when they’ve made a mistake.

1. Take ownership – as soon as possible

This is one area where I found myself holding a begrudging respect and even (surprisingly) nodding at O’Leary’s statement. I shared the anger at announcements were being made on a Friday that would impact passengers that same weekend – so perhaps he didn’t quite nail the as soon ‘as possible’ element. But it must be said, while my sympathies lie with the passengers whose plans have been destroyed, he didn’t try – as many corporations have done historically – to hide behind a statement, or assign blame on a third party. He came out, and he owned it.

“This is our mess-up,” O’Leary told a press conference.

“When we make a mess in Ryanair, we come out with our hands up. We try to explain why we’ve made the mess and we will pay compensation to those passengers who are entitled to compensation.”

We all know from experience reading the press that even a single word can be misconstrued, taken out of context, or run with. A mistake can also leave organizations liable to legal action, financial repercussions or reputational damage – so perhaps it’s no surprise that many choose to release a statement, stick to a scrip… or try to hide the mistake altogether.

This is a dangerous game. It today’s connected world and thanks to the sheer power of social media, a single leak can become a global sensation in a matter of hours. Endeavoring to bury something is doomed to fail – and can make things so much worse when it surfaces. Like a ripple effect, most negative news or experiences will be shared – having measurable, knock-on impact on business results.

admitting fault in business customers

(Source: Streampage, ‘Nail a great apology in 5 simple steps’.)

A scripted response or a statement also appears a formality; insincere, not going far enough. It may be a business error, but people respond to people: putting a face to the incident is powerful in reassuring customers, staff, and stakeholders.

Yes, admitting you’re wrong is uncomfortable. It calls for us to swallow our pride and acknowledge our own humanity. It will have consequences. But the sooner you own it, the less drama you face – and the quicker you can move onto the next stage, of actually resolving the situation.

When a mistake comes to light, however, there is a balancing act. Ensure that you have all the facts and aren’t acting on falsehoods, hearsay or incomplete information. Seek legal advice where appropriate and speak directly to senior leaders involved to get a clear picture. Act quickly, but thoroughly.

If you don’t have the information right now, communicate that: tell those waiting for updates when they can expect more. Speaking about unearthing the incident, Mr. O’Leary confessed Ryanair had been slow to realize the scale of the problem until they “got into the weeds of it” – all the time allowing the situation to escalate, and tempers to fray. A costly mistake.

We explore the process of planning and communicating during uncertainty in our eBook, Communicating Change.

2. Explain clearly

Managing a mistake is, in many ways, just another form of change management. There will be consequences, fallout, an impact. Everyone, inside and out, is looking to understand what this means, the risks, the short and long-term implications. Ultimately, we’re all after the WIIFM factor: how is this going to impact me?

Don’t hide behind corporate speak and play the hidden mirrors game. Afford your stakeholders, staff, and consumers as much clarity as you can give them. Have a plan, and look to understand the stakes of your stakeholder groups – then explain the implication of this error on them.

admitting fault in business stakeholders

Each stakeholder will have different priorities. Your shareholders may be concerned about the impact on turnover and profit, whereas your staff may focus on implications for hours or workload. If you don’t fill the gaps, someone else will – and speculation or water cooler talk will only lead to negativity, along with its associated implications on internal morale and external brand.

Try and tailor and personalize the message if possible, talking to individual stakeholder groups – internal employees will expect and respond to a different message to consumers, for example.

“So,” O’Leary began the Ryanair conference, “here’s the factual position.”

Sounded promising. However, a word of warning: “clearly” doesn’t necessarily mean “as comprehensively, long-winded and fully as possible”. Yes, your audience will want the facts. They need the information to make up their own minds. But drowning them in figures, stats, business jargon or overelaborate explanations dilutes the message. It weakens what you’re trying to do, and comes across as trying to lose your audience or bury the real facts.

In a great example of this within the space of just two minutes, O’Leary delivered a comprehensive series of facts, figures, and dates that diverted the attention:

’50 flights a day for 6 weeks … 8 to 9 days… 90% to 70%… 12.7 million passengers in August… an increase in traffic of over 10% compared to the previous August… 4,200 pilots… a crewing ratio of 5.2 per aircraft… each only requires 2 per day… moving from a 12month leave period from 1st April to 31st, a fiscal year… the IAE required us starting on 1st January 2018 to allocate leave on a calendar annual year, 1st January to 31st December…”.

Admittedly, this can perhaps be a hard one to argue. The pragmatists amongst us may ask only for the bare necessities, while the analysts want all the information. Give too little, and you’ll be accused of withholding information; too much, and you’ve lost your message.

I would say the key here is to remember the underlying objective of what you’re doing: you’re admitting fault. Trying to soften the blow by slipping a sly KPI figure or two isn’t likely to win anyone over: people will see right through you.

3. Don’t shift blame

This is a tactic as old as the school playground, yet even at senior business level we don’t seem to be able to let go of it entirely. Seeking out a scapegoat when things go wrong is, perhaps, only natural. We don’t want to be the ones responsible, the direction all those pointed fingers go.

However. Shifting blame is not only counterproductive, it completely undermines that trust, integrity and humanity you’re looking to build with your audience. Depending on who the scapegoat is, it can also cause additional frictions or damage relationships that could make resolution of the mistake even more difficult.

admitting fault in business responses

One approach I see often is the not-so-subtle dropping in of someone else, while still – on the face of it at least – appearing to accept blame. It’s underhand, and a tactic many managers will tell you costs their trust in employees and undermines team cultures. O’Leary sneaked this one in rather beautifully during the press conference:

“…While we’re still running most of the summer schedule, and taking flight delays because of principally air traffic control and weather disruptions. I’m not trying to blame air traffic control or weather disruptions, the blame for this lies with us, but…”

That heavy weighted word, ‘but’, is the strongest indicator of all.

The strongest leaders take responsibility for, and openly admit failures or mistakes. This not affords them integrity and earns respect from peers, but sets an example to their teams to create a culture in which it is acceptable to fail – if it is acknowledged.

If the original fault lies with an individual(s) in the business, don’t jump to blame them either. Commend those who come forward and accept responsibility, but own the problem and solution at the top. By affording employees respect and leading from the front, you prevent a ‘blame culture’ in which employees will be too afraid to take risks, innovate, or come forward when things go wrong. This confidence is key to mitigating future risk and errors.

4. Apologize, sincerely

It follows closely from taking ownership, but it’s important to recognize the two are distinct from one another.

Taking ownership is the act of saying “this is our fault”. Apologizing is the next stage – of recognizing the impact you’ve had, and actually saying sorry.

A good apology explains what happened and why, outlying the reasoning behind the original decision and the logic that led to that point. Then, it sets out what lessons you’ve learned and how you’ll use this experience or information to prevent a reoccurrence in the future.

admitting fault in business successful apology

Sincerity really is the key here. If you’re not genuine in your apology, your audience will smell it a mile away. Don’t qualify your apology, or seek to mitigate it. Don’t distance yourself from it – for example, “Ryanair wishes to apologize”, rather than, “we’re sorry” or “a mistake was made” rather than, “we made a mistake.” Put your hands up, and admit fault. It’s much harder to be angry at someone who has admittedly they’ve messed up, than the guy who refuses to acknowledge there was any other option.

Listening to O’Leary, there’s no denying that he issued an apology. “I apologize, we will try to do better in future”, he is quoted as saying. However, listening further I found a distinct lack of sincerity each time he uttered the words. They’re almost always followed by a qualifier, a justification, an excuse, something to mitigate blame:

“But to put it in some context, it amounts to less than 2% of flights… I don’t want to in any way diminish, or play down, the inconvenience that will be caused to the 2% of passengers who will be affected by these flights but I do want to point out, that 98% of our flights, and 98% of our customers, will not in any way be affected by these cancellations.”

There it is again: that unfailing, ‘but’.

5. Fix and follow through

Even if you follow these steps to the letter and succeed in owning to your mistake, explaining clearly what has happened and apologizing to those affected, this all amounts to nothing if you don’t take proactive steps to fix or make amends. Words, as they say, are cheap.

Showing you’ve learned from the experience and are taking the necessary actions to resolve the issue, communicate with and manage impact for those affected, and prevent a reoccurrence are essential. What support can you offer? What plan is in place for the next stage?

Don’t just do it – be transparent and show those affected what how you’re responding. Allocate resource specifically to speak with consumers or employees affected, and ensure they’re empowered and upskilled to deal with queries or complaints. Nothing will undermine your efforts more than issuing an explanation, and then cutting the lines of communication while you work behind closed doors.

Ryanair fell prey to this, as complaints arose that calls and messages through the airline’s customer service center and online ‘chat’ service were being unanswered or cut off. Some staff simply weren’t able to answer questions put forward by customers.

Finally – it sounds obvious, but (surprisingly) it still needs highlighting. Don’t bark the orders for resolving a problem to junior members of staff and walk away. When things go wrong, it’s up to those in the management seat to take the wheel and be proactively involved in setting things right. Your presence amongst employees will provide direction, reassurance, and motivation during challenging times.

In the flurry of anger that typically accompanies a mistake, it’s not uncommon for those affected to seek out justice or a scapegoat themselves – calls for resignation or the sacking of individuals responsible is common. Naturally, that’s a question for your senior management or board, but don’t rush to evict unless it’s absolutely necessary – and if the heat is on you, consider the damage to your own personal brand in dropping the bomb and running.

Strong and better leaders are made from those who face adversity or challenges head on, and work to find a resolution.

Actually, O’Leary showed his own brand of grit here too. Asked if he believed he should lose his job over the incident, he replied: “No, I don’t think my head should roll, I need to stay here and fix this.”

6. Work with those who can help resolve the issue

The key to resolving the Ryanair issue of a shortage of pilots was – unsurprisingly – the pilots themselves.

If your employees are the key to unlocking the mess or mistake that’s been made, now – more than ever – it’s vital to engage with, and understand, their concerns. Even those organizations boasting high levels of staff loyalty and retention will need to make a gesture of goodwill that aligns with the needs or concerns of their employees, if they are looking for speedy and effective resolution.

While focus during a mistake or crisis is naturally on the incident itself, be aware of how you respond, communicate, and engage with employees. Use this as an opportunity to address underlying issues and show staff their value. Let’s face it, you’re far more likely to get employee buy-in with:

“We’ve made a big mistake, and we’re aware this is going to impact you. We’re sincerely sorry, and will be learning from this to ensure it doesn’t happen again. You are the key to helping us resolve this, so let’s talk about what you need from us to make that happen.”

O’Leary, on the other hand, was once again left with egg on his face when an offer of 12,000 Euros bonus to work additional hours was knocked back by staff, who instead used the opportunity to pitch for new contracts, better working conditions, and higher wages. The public knock to the employer brand comes amid claims more than 140 pilots have left the airline for competitor Norwegian Air in recent months. Employee engagement, it seems, is low.

However, rather than taking this opportunity to listen to the concerns of pilots and take positive steps to meet their needs or give ground in order to collaboratively reach a solution, O’Leary was seen antagonizing his much-needed Get Out Of Jail Free card with insults, false claims, and a show of managerial bullying. Threatening to cancel pilots’ time off altogether, he is quoted as accusing some pilots of being “precious about themselves” and “full of their own self-importance”, arguing that pilots were only flying 18 hours a week and therefore “[couldn’t] possibly be suffering from fatigue.”

His rebukes, unsurprisingly, have failed to turn up the results the airline needs.

When things go wrong, unite

It may only take a single individual to cause a mistake, but resolution is typically a team effort. The more stakeholders – both in and outside the business – you can get on-side and rally around for support, the more likely you are to reach a quick and effective resolution, as well as prevent a future reoccurrence.

Mistakes are part of what makes us human, and contrary to belief, we don’t lose all our credibility when they occur. However, we can cause irreparable damage in the way we choose to address them.

Next time you make a ‘major boo-boo’, take time to consider your next steps and pay attention to your response. It could mean the difference behind returning stronger and more respected as an organization, or writing yourself a one-way ticket to demise.