Screwing Up Could Be Your Best Career Move—If You Do It Right

A screwup doesn't have to ruin your life, assuming you respond in smart and creative ways. Tips for turning your fumbles into successful turning points.

I've admired Southwest Airlines for many years, and I've cited them as a company with a clear focus, a vibrant soul, and a culture you can see in all areas of their business and reflected in their business performance. And as a ridiculously frequent business traveler, I made them my preferred domestic airline many years ago. Given this and my professional respect for them, it was a real honor to be invited to speak at one of their recent management conferences. I appreciated their genuine hospitality (I was hugged quite a lot), their pride in and love for their company, and I was impressed by the investment they make in people.

At the same time, I had the pleasure of getting to know the other main speaker at the event, Jay Heinrichs. He's an author, persuasion consultant, and raconteur, and his energy and presence was intriguing and unique. Southwest curated the content for their team and choose two key subjects (and speakers) that were diametrically opposed in almost every way. I spoke on "Designing Random Acts of Kindness" and Jay spoke on "How to Screw Up." He believes there's much to be learned from mistakes, mishaps, and screwing up, and given we live in a world where people and companies are doing all they can to paint a picture of perfection, I was intrigued by Jay's perspective on "screwing up" as a business discipline.

After talking with Jay, it's clear he's uniquely qualified, both as an expert on rhetoric, master in the art of persuasion, and by his own self-admission, as a lifelong bungler. He admits lacking any sense of direction whatsoever, and suffers with an extreme case of permanent absent-mindedness, which according to Jay made for a pretty awkward dating life. He thanks rhetoric for helping him overcome those handicaps and despite himself has been married to a good woman for life.

His first significant encounter with screwing up professionally happened when he accidentally misplaced a volcano. Just out of college Jay was working at a conservation magazine, when Mount St. Helens started smoking. He wrote an article about how this previously inactive volcano in Oregon had suddenly become active. It was one of the first things he ever got published. Jay didn't realize his error until an envelope with the official Washington State seal arrived on his desk. Inside was a letter from Governor Dixy Lee Ray, asking for her volcano back. Jay had screwed up and put the mountain in the wrong state, a humiliating error for a budding journalist. Frantically coming up with a solution, he walked into his boss's office a few minutes later. Jay told him what had happened, showed him the letter, and shared his plan. "How about buying a volcano--plastic, bronze, whatever--and presenting it to her?" Jay offered. "No," the editor in chief said. "A mistake does not earn you a trip to the West Coast. But go ahead and find a volcano. Then just mail it." So Jay mailed it. And some weeks later, he received a photo of the governor posing with the volcano in one hand and his magazine in the other. They printed that with a correction in the next issue. Jay's boss was so happy about the outcome that, when St. Helens exploded sometime later, he sent Jay to write a cover story. And that's when he realized that a screwup doesn't have to ruin your life. In fact, if you respond in a smart way, you can learn from the mistake and often turn a negative into a positive.

If you ask Jay who is his favorite screwup story, he'd tell you it's Bill Clinton. He thinks the man made a historic ass of himself. But in the spirit of "How to Screw Up," Bill Clinton has been a master. Look at how during his challenges, he continually shifted the focus to the future and moved on. Today, Bill Clinton has newfound respect as he puts his exceptional intellect and statesmanship to work helping to solve some of the world's most significant issues. If you ask Jay who and what inspired his thinking on screwing up, he'd tell you in a New York minute, Aristotle. Jay is an expert on all things surrounding his rhetoric and logic.

What does Aristotle have to do with screwing up?

Aristotle wrote the original book on persuasion: "Rhetoric." All persuasion books that have been written in the 2,600 years since descend from Aristotle's ideas. He offers two important tools that apply to recovering from screwups.

First, Aristotle said that the most important tool of persuasion--even more important than logic--is "ethos," which has to do with getting an audience to like and trust you. The ideal ethos, or projected image of yourself, displays craft (authority with the subject at hand, and an ability to apply that knowledge to specific situations); caring (whether you're interested only in your audience's benefit), and cause (whether you stand for something larger than yourself). In a screwup, you need to present a workable plan to show your craft. Emphasize that you're putting all hands on deck, doing whatever it takes, staying up all night to fix the problem. That's the caring part. As for cause? Point out that you have high standards and that you plan to live up to them.

Second tool: tense. Aristotle said that there are three types of persuasion, each having to do with a different tense. The past is about crime and punishment, about screwups that happened--where else?--in the past. The present has to do with values, with right and wrong, who's good and who's bad. Then there's the future, where you talk about the expected outcomes of decisions and choices. Want to get someone to make a decision? Focus on the future.

Jay got all that from Aristotle--who, by the way, tutored a young lad named Alexander. Little Alexander took these same tools of persuasion, created a volunteer army, and conquered the known world. He earned himself the title Alexander the Great. If it worked for him, and it's likely that it'll work for your screwups.

Apply it to Tim Cook and Bank of America.

Arguably the Apple maps debacle was a significant test in how the post-Jobs Apple would behave in a pinch. From Heinrichs' perspective, Tim Cook handled the Apple Maps disappointment badly because he apologized. People think they might want an apology from Apple, but that's not really what they want. The iPhone 5 hit the market and the sheen or invincibility of Apple was washed away by the negative press about the new Apple Maps. Cook apologized for the lousy new application and instantly fired Eric Forstall, the guy in charge of the maps, allegedly because he refused to sign an apology. Apple's stock took an immediate beating. Had Cook applied Heinrichs rules and emphasized Apple's high standards, mentioned that the company had temporarily failed to live up to them, and then focused on how the Maps would soon be even cooler than people imagined, the fallout would have been different. Cook should have said that Apple is putting all hands on deck, the most talented people in the world, to get it done. And he should have hinted at what to expect. No apology needed. Shift to the future, emphasize craft, caring, and cause, and watch the results change. If only Cook had been as experienced at screwing up as Jay Heinrichs.

A couple years ago, Bank of America outsourced 100 tech-support jobs to India--and told the fired workers they had to train their replacements in order to get severance checks. The bank got well-deserved terrible publicity for this. How should the managers have handled the screwup? First, they should have recognized their mistake and reported it to the press as quickly as possible, explaining the outsourcing and giving the fired workers their checks immediately. Second, they should have shifted the focus to the future, promising improved efficiency and better service to customers. And while the workers themselves deserved an apology, it should have been done in private. A public apology only makes a company look smaller. Fix the problem and focus on a better future.

Rules for a proper screwup.

As I got to know Jay Heinrichs I couldn't help but think of how similar his name was to Henry Jay Heimlich, the American physician who invented abdominal thrusts more commonly known as the Heimlich Maneuver. This infamous technique has proven to be a highly effective protocol when dealing with large lumps caught in the throat or abdomen, saving the lives of many a grateful victim. I wonder if Heinrichs' Rules for a Screw Up will become as helpful, and ultimately as famous for helping companies manage significant mistakes and lumps caught in their system.

Here are the rules:

1. Be first with the news if you can.
You get much better control of the matter if the bad news comes straight from you. Plus, right after delivering the news, you can show that you...

2. Have a plan.
People get over the shock of your screwup pretty quickly if you show you have a way to fix it. But don't wait to give the plan. You need to present it immediately after giving the news. Why? Because that way you...

3. Shift to the future.
Focus on what happens next. That's what Clinton did.

4. Don't apologize.
This is the most controversial advice I give. Apologies come with several problems. First, they focus on the past, on the screwup, reminding people of what you did. Second, apologies rarely satisfy people. They almost always seem inadequate. That's because apologies are "self-belittling"--they shrink you down to the size of the victim or smaller. People often demand an apology more as vengeance than as any way to improve matters. Instead, you need to be in a position of strength so that you can solve the problem and get past the screwup.

Heinrichs is the author of Thank You for Arguing and Word Hero www.amazon.com and you can follow him on jayheinrichs.com.

Do you have any tips for making the most of your missteps? Tell us about it in the comments.

--Shawn Parr is the Guvner & CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego whose clients and partners have included Starbucks, Diageo, Jack in the Box, Adidas, MTV, Nestle, Pinkberry, American Eagle Outfitters, Ideo, Virgin, Disney, Nike, Mattel, Heineken, Annie's Homegrown, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, CleanWell, The Honest Kitchen, and World Vision. Follow the conversation at @BULLDOGDRUMMOND.

[Image: Flickr user Thorbjorn Sigberg]

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27 Comments

  • Alec

    There are some good points in this article but it lost me with the "don't apologies" premise - this is wrong for all the reasons people have listed below; the Clinton example (yes he is doing great things now but he didn't screw-up in the sense of making a mistake, he was dishonest) and; using the Heimlich Maneuver as an example of what to aspire to - unfortunately for the author this method is no longer best practice for the treatment of choking and Heimlich himself has been challenged as to his methodology and results

  • Lee

    This reminds me of my "problem, solution" rule I have.  When presented with a problem, even on that I created, my mind instantly moves to seeking out the solution.  I don't react to a situation, I act on a situation..... years of tripping over my own faults have guided me to a much more "confident I can fix it' person! 

  • Anne

    I read this article a few days ago. I thought it was great right up until #4: "Don't apologize." And it's bugged me enough ever since to come back and say so. Nobody's perfect. It takes more guts admit you were wrong and apologize than just breeze over bad news as if no one is accountable. I would propose a re-order of the steps. 1. Be first with the news if you can. 2. Apologize. 3. Have a plan. 4. Shift to the future. 

  • Terry

    Anne, I agree. I was thinking the exact same thing. I've always disagreed with that saying "never say you're sorry, it's a sign of weakness". I have more respect for people that sincerely apologize when they are in the wrong, especially when it is in person, and they are looking you in the eye. You can always tell if it is sincere. It takes a bigger person to admit to a mistake, apologize and then strategize as to how to make it right.

    There is a whole new generation that has been taught they are fantastic, they deserve everything they want and they want it now, can do no wrong, and to never say you're sorry or apologize for anything. But not to pin it on the younger generation, this attitude is surfacing everywhere. I digress. I liked you comment.

  • Jcook311

    I agree to a certain extent.  It applies more to the examples he has provided above.  Corporations, government entities, press conferences, larger arenas which have a different dynamic would be better off following the above, but there has to be apology on a personal level ie relationships, neighbors, strangers.

  • CIF

    Great points! It really is important to act and implement repair action immediately. Sometimes a screwup can cause an irreparable smirch to a company's reputation. What BofA did with their workers, withholding their severance pay until they trained their replacements, can only be perceived as arrogance. While the public may or may not appreciate it if a company apologizes, people will certainly not like a company's arrogance amid its mistake.

  • Chris Reich

    The four conclusion points are excellent.

    I want to address something not clearly defined in this piece. A "screwup" is an error, not an act of dishonesty. Bill Clinton is a bad example to use because the man has serious character flaws. He didn't screw up, he lied. Afterward, Clinton and Clinton wanted us to accept Bill's behavior as just a goofy screwup.

    This goes to the Lance Armstrong comment. Armstrong didn't screw up, he cheated. Willful acts of dishonesty are not screwups. This article applies to honest errors, not acts of dishonesty. I fault the author for blurring that line.

    Here's a screwup of mine. A client received an opportunity to bid on a very large project. I encouraged the client to pursue the project. My client was hesitant and didn't want to use resources on a long shot. I pushed. Client agreed to pursue.

    Phase II. Prospect wanted a team to fly out and discuss the bid. My client didn't want the expense (2 people, cross country, 4 days= $5,000)  I encouraged the client to spend the money.

    Phase III. Prospect asked for plan review and re-quote. Client said enough is enough but I again encouraged client to act. Why not? It was a huge project.

    I got the word yesterday that the prospect eliminated my client in the first round but since we were willing to "go along", they used us as a benchmark quote against their favored vendor.

    Crappy, unethical behavior. Still, I pushed against my client's judgment and urged them to chase this deal. My screwup. The deal would have been very good for my client.

    Now I will do the 4 steps.

  • Shawn Parr

    Jay would likely tell you that you're right about the distinction between an honest mistake and getting caught in a dishonest act. He'd probably tell you that he sees the two as closely related and the appropriate responses aren't dissimilar. 

  • Michelle Lawson

    This article makes a very important point - change your perspective and  you can change your circumstances.  In life, how we view what happens to us is more important than what happens to us. 

  • giselahausmann

    This should be taught in school!.. It isn't and now look at the result: Adults have to relearn!

  • CharlieF

    So, Lance Armstrong did not apologize and he was vilified for that. What else could he have done, or should have done? How he could he have come out looking better after the Oprah show?

  • Shawn

    I'm pretty sure everyone he let down and disappointed over the years would have appreciated him leaving his self-important arrogance at home and replacing it with humility and sincerity. 

  • Sally Arnold

    Am reminded that "screw ups or stuff ups" can happen as a performing artist. As challenging as it can be for this to be on stage, you have to move on and keep the performance happening. Imagine if a dancer stopped dancing or a musician stopped playing. You sort out the problem challenge quickly to keep the performance on track. Many times the audience is unaware of stuff ups. Is a big learning many times to look afterwards at what happened, how it happened and work on making that "stuff up" not happen again. Also is an area too if not worked with that can bring on performance anxiety. 

  • Ben Lu

    It's Scot Forstall that got let go. Checking the facts is also important too, you know. 

  • Adriana

    Excellent piece and completely agree.  I summize it in one word--accountability.  Showing accountability and action to rectify is the mark of strength and leadership.  We are all human and mistakes will be made, it is how you deal with them that distinguishes true leadership and integrity.

    Agree with the comment about apologizing to an individual if it is called for and doing it in private as that is a relationshp issue and its own version of being accountable.  On a business screwup I would not want to fuel or set myself up for liability.

  • Kevin Roussel

    Great article! Apologizing should be replaced by acknowledgement. Saying you're sorry does not have an impact in your crisis communications. Acknowledging does.

  • Jeff

    Kevin, I like the distinction you make, but would say that acknowledgement is part of any honest apology. From my perspective -- one probably cribbed from that of the Catholic Church -- a true, honest apology requires four elements:

    1) An acknowledgement of error/wrongdoing along with 

    2) Acceptance of responsibility for same

    3) Some kind of statement that one regrets one's actions and its attendant consequences, normally along with the sentiment that one would do things differently in retrospect.

    4) A promise to make things right and further promise to amend one's behavior in the future.

    If you don't have those four things, you don't have a real apology, although it's often the case where at least one of those elements is implied or left as a tacit agreement rather than an explicit statement. That said, if the aggreived party feels that any one of those four elements is missing, they simply won't accept the apology. Or most people won't, or will take it with a large grain of salt. And, honestly, a quasi-apology or non-apology is often WORSE than not apologizing at all. 

    So... when Step 1 of Heinrich's plan is to give the bad news yourself and step 2 is have a plan, and step 3 is to focus on what happens next, then one can sort of interpolate that Jay is telling you to acknowledge the error, take responsibility for it, and express how you intend to make amends, which lines up rather nicely with elements 1, 2, and 4. 

    My opinion, then, is that Jay is telling us simpy to let #3 -- the statement of regret -- go as an assumed, implied, and obvious aspect of your overal reaction to the error, rather than as an explicit or prolonged part of it. And I can accept that so long as the overall sentiment is implied by you and inferred by the recipient, with the "so long as" aspect being the crucial one.