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Bounce back from an embarrassing error

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in Leaders & Managers,Management Training

It happens to all of us. In a critical moment when all eyes are upon us, we do or say something terribly wrong. The embarrassment is almost too much to bear.

Yet the act itself--our screw-up--is only a bit player in the greater drama. The real test is how we respond. The ability to show grace even with egg on our face is what leaves a lasting favorable impression on others. They may not remember our initial blunder, but they will admire our poise for a long time.

Consider the case of Joseph Tucker. Soon after he founded his Milwaukee-based company, Victory Personnel Services Inc., in 1991, Tucker attended his first meeting as a new board member of a prestigious regional business council.

Just as he was introduced, he reached for the coffee pot to fill his cup. But the top was loose and coffee spilled on the table, splattered onto other CEOs and soaked their handouts.

"My first thought was to clean it up as quickly as I could and survey the damage,? says Tucker. "People were sitting close together, so that made it worse."

While Tucker appreciated that the group of about 20 executives reacted calmly and tried to make him comfortable as a newcomer, he still felt self-conscious. "That was the first board I served on and I was a little out of my league to start with," he recalls. "My business was just over one year old, while they ran more elite, well-established companies."

Tucker admits that he "wanted to get under the table" after the incident, but instead he cracked a joke ("I'm so happy to be here") and persevered. In the coming months, he earned the respect of his peers and the mishap became ancient history.

"We all make mistakes," says Tucker, whose company earned $25.7 million in sales in 2006. "But the more people identify with your humanity, the more comfortable they are with you."

Lessons Learned

To follow Joseph Tucker's lead in taking embarrassing incidents in stride:

Spring into action. Rather than stare dumbfounded into space or strike a frozen, deer-in-the-headlights expression, shift into problem-solving mode as soon as you realize what has happened. Tucker's first thought was to clean up the mess, not sit idly and stew in embarrassment.

Stay calm. Some hotheads might lose their composure, but Tucker remained in control. He even made light of the situation to put himself--and the group--at ease.

Maintain your perspective. This incident occurred more than 14 years ago, and Tucker remembers it. "But I bet no one else in that room gave it a second thought," he laughs. What's mortifyingly embarrassing to you may barely register to others.

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