When You Make a Mistake Come Clean Immediately or Pay the Price like Goodell

By Dr. Loretta Malandro


When you make a mistake, especially a big one, you must come clean immediately, be transparent and authentic, and drop all double-talk. Or pay the price of lost credibility and trust as Goodell did.

In the News:Let’s take a short excerpt from Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, when he addressed the media on Friday, September 19, 2014. He was quoted as saying: “At our best, the NFL sets an example that makes a positive difference. Unfortunately over the last several weeks, we’ve seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong. That starts with me. I said this before back on August 28 and say it again now, I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter and I’m sorry for that. I got it wrong on a number of levels, from the process that I led to the decision that I reached. But now I will get it right and do whatever is necessary to accomplish that.”

Let’s Break It Down: Too Much Hedging, Not Enough Straight Talk

As a communication expert, here are my time-seasoned dos and don’ts to communicating effectivity and authentically when the world is watching you apologize.

  • Stop the PR Campaign: When you’ve made a major mistake, this is not the time to talk about the good things you or your organization have done. Goodell’s opening line “At our best, the NFL sets an example that makes a positive difference” is irritating and useless. Who cares about the good stuff when there is an urgent matter at hand?People see right through the ruse of talking about past good deeds. Drop all preambles and go straight to the real message: Sincerely apologize and take full accountability for your actions.
  • Drop filler words and phrases used to pad the message: Fillers are used to soften a message and/or minimize the significance of an issue. “Unfortunately” and “I said this before and I’ll say it again,” are examples of filler language. They make listeners work to strip out the soft cushioning phrases to understand what is really being said. When people are upset, fillers escalate the intensity of negative feelings and judgments.
  • Avoid phrases that come across as cliché or scripted: “I got it wrong” is repeated several times and then used again in what sounds like a speechwriter’s clever phrase: “I got it wrong…but now I will get it right….” Clever? Not in this context. Memorable? In a negative manner. Authentic? Absolutely not. This play on words waters down the message and makes the apology seem disingenuous. How about dropping scripted language and speaking from the heart? For instance: “I blew it” or “I made a big mistake” and “I am talking to you today because I want to publicly take full accountability for my action and my lack of action.”
  • Be specific about what you did or did not do: People need to know that the person apologizing understands the full extent of how his or her actions affect others. “I got it wrong on a number of levels” a phrase used by Goodell, is vague and ambiguous. What does this mean? What levels? Are we climbing a staircase? As a listener, we are left to fill in the blanks and interpret the message. Goodell misses the opportunity to own his mistakes in a public forum by being sincere and detailed. If he did, we might actually believe that he is genuinely taking accountability. He would need to be honest and stop dancing around the issue such as:  “I made several mistakes. First, I did not talk to you when the Ray Rice matter surfaced. I waited over a week. My behavior was unacceptable. With an issue of this significance, I needed to talk with you immediately. Second, I made a number of mistakes from the process I led to the decision that I reached. They are….”
  • Dump sweeping and empty promises about the future. If you want to get people more upset than they already are, just make a promise about the future that is meaningless. Take Goodell’s broad and empty promise: “…now I will get it right and do whatever is necessary to accomplish that.” Do you have any idea of what this means in terms of action? Are you convinced that things will be different in the future? Or, are you bristling with the deflection just used? Goodell needed to make a bold commitment about where the NFL stands on this highly sensitive manner—now and for the future. He also needed to deliver a specific plan so we, his listeners, would know what exactly would be different in the future to prevent the same (big) mistake from occurring again.


Actions you can take if you make a whopper of a mistake: Even if your company never ends up as headline news for all the wrong reasons, you’ll want to know how to best communicate so you don’t lose customers, shareholders, loyal fans, and your prize players (or employees, if you will.)

If you need to come clean about a mistake you’ve made, learn what not to do from others. Take control of a challenging situation and:

1)      Communicate immediately to the appropriate person(s).

Do not postpone the conversation even for a day. If you do, things will get worse and emotions will escalate.

2)      Drop all preambles, explanations and excuses. Sincerely take accountability and apologize.

Forgo lengthy explanations, reasons, and excuses for why you did what you did. Stick to the facts. Take accountability and genuinely apologize. Example: “I dropped the ball big time. I let you down and the team down and I deeply regret my actions.”

3)      State—in precise terms—how your actions affected others:

People want to know if you really got it—that you truly understand the full extent of how your actions created a big problem for others. So address this: “I know I have disappointed you and I have lost your trust. I also know that my actions—and my lack of action—have hurt the reputation and credibility of our team. All of this is my accountability. I will not run from the damage I have caused. I must—and I will—change my behavior and I will address the actions I am taking with you today.”

4)      Make an authentic commitment about what will be different in the future.

What we call commitment today are words without action. An authentic commitment requires a) precise actions, and b) “by when” dates so everything is tied down in time. Without a time commitment, no one can be held accountable. You may not have all the details, but your apology will not be taken seriously unless you communicate the first steps you will take in addressing the situation. For example: “I know these are just words right now. You need to see real change in me and action. The actions I will take are….You can count on this being done in under 90 days. I will give you a progress report every month starting at the end of this month. I will include you in every step of this process. I want to regain your confidence and trust.”


Loretta Malandro Keynote Speaker

Dr. Loretta Malandro is the CEO of the Malandro Consulting Group (www.malandro.com) and the author of several landmark business communication books published by McGraw-Hill including: Fearless Leadership, Say It Right the First Time, and her new book which is being released November 2014, “Speak Up, Show Up, and Stand Out”.


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