When Blunders Happen…

On a recent United Airlines flight I was reading the airline’s magazine and noted the opening article from the CEO.  I’ve read these often before.  Usually they’re touting the new benefits for the frequent flier program, the great new plane, the great employees they have.  This one was different: the CEO was talking about some of the operational challenges they’ve had recently, and what they’re doing about them.

He began this way:  “Over the past couple of months, our operational performance did not meet our goal of providing the reliability of service that our customers expect and that we want to deliver for you.”

He then went on to detail some of the problems, and spoke specifically about how those problems have caused difficulties for customers.  He gave examples, and was clear about the challenges with which the airline was dealing.  And then he talked about their commitment to addressing each of those challenges.  He also expressed appreciation that customers were staying with them through this difficult time, and talked about the company’s plans for the future.  He closed with the following paragraph:

“We have many exciting things ahead, but we recognize that we must first and always get the basics right: providing you, our customers, with safe, clean and reliable air transportation.  We hold ourselves to a higher reliability standard than we’ve delivered for our customers lately, and I am confident that we will promptly return to the level of reliability that you expect.”

I was extremely impressed by this, and think there are some important lessons here for all leaders (and all supervisors and managers):

  • Publicly acknowledge problems and mistakes.

We all make mistakes, and every workplace has problems.  Don’t sweep them under the rug and pretend they don’t exist when dealing with those affected by them.  Your employees and customers will see the problems and think you’re an idiot for not noticing.

  • Be specific about what the issues are.

Define and describe what’s gone wrong.  That will require that you know what’s gone wrong, and  that you communicate that to the stakeholders in a sincere and timely manner.

  • Be clear about what you’re going to do about the problem, and when stakeholders can expect resolution.

Tell people what you’re doing to fix the problem.  That communicates to them that you understand, and tells them what they can expect from you.

  • Finally, confirm your values and how those values will drive you to do better.

Applying this approach, modeled here by United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek , will go far in winning the trust and admiration of your staff and customers, with two cautionary notes: you must be genuine in your remarks, and can’t do this often.  Yes, you’re allowed mistakes (especially if you acknowledge and learn from them).  But you don’t get to repeatedly make the same blunder, and you don’t get to repeatedly make major blunders of any kind.  That will lose you customers and get you fired. 

Do you have experience acknowledging a mistake?  We’d love to hear what happened!  ~Daphne Schneider

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2 responses to “When Blunders Happen…

  1. But just because someone wrote this for him, why do you believe what he says? How do you know that he will do what he says? How do you know he has a clue how to do those things.

    I could go on and on.

    By nature I’m a skeptic.

    • Daphne Schneider

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your persepctive – and your skepticism. And it could be that someone wrote this for him. However, the point remains the same: when an organization (or an individual) messes up, the best thing is to acknowledge the mistake, announce what you plan to do about it, and do it. Daphne

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