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How to survive a dumb thing you did to your boss

Done right, you can rebound and actually end up with an improved relationship

You have just done something that makes your boss look bad. Perhaps it was an action that involved him directly, or a remark about a valued client. You meant no offense. Really. But now you need to handle this common misstep correctly to avoid any lasting damage to your career.

I call such inadvertent blunders an "eggface." My latest yolk splatter came at an office cocktail party I attended this summer with a younger colleague. He had just accepted a promotion to become my supervisor. I have always worked for someone older.

"I guess now you report to him," commented a co-worker chatting with us.

"Actually, he reports to me," I replied reflexively. My boss-to-be smiled wanly.

Struggling to recover, I stammered, "Uh, we're peers."

Done right, you can rebound from such an embarrassing moment and actually end up with a better relationship with your boss, says Joseph Grenny, president of VitalSmarts, a leadership and training firm in Provo, and a co-author of the recent book "Crucial Confrontations."

The first step after making yourself look arrogant or incompetent is to earn back your boss's trust, says Mel Fugate, an assistant professor at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business. Don't wait or try to smooth over the gaffe with a quip. Apologize immediately, face to face. And speak slowly to sound truly remorseful.

Next, accept responsibility for what you did or said. Empathize with the discomfort you caused. Offer a credible explanation for the dumb deed. If appropriate, you can even solicit your manager's ideas about how to prevent a recurrence, such as identifying potential landmines in dealing with a cranky customer.

Also, Fugate suggests, "communicating in advance what you plan to do or say (to a client) will help alleviate a boss's anxiety."

A senior professional at Adecco Staffing North America had to brief the president of that company, Raymond T. Roe, about key business statistics hours before Roe shared them with an important client over dinner last winter. The next day, however, the professional gave more up-to-date figures during his own formal presentation to the client, in front of the big boss. Roe halted the meeting and had to explain to the client that his numbers from the previous night were wrong.

The embarrassing reversal "did make me look stupid," says the Adecco official. "Putting the boss in a position where he makes a mistake is a serious problem."

Roe privately confronted the employee about the mix-up. "At first, he blew it off and said, 'It's no big deal,' " says Roe. But later the employee apologized to him, vowing not to repeat his mistake.

"I've got it right this time," the staffer reassured his boss during his briefing ahead of the next major client dinner. "We only have one set of data." The corrective actions "made me think more highly of him," Roe says.

You could also forge a deeper bond with your boss if he gleans an unexpected benefit from your eggface. Ken Willis attended a pool party years ago for a departing fellow bureau chief at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Every guest got dunked upon arrival. So when his boss, Jim Minter, showed up, he threw the fully dressed editor into the water, too.

"I remember the event in slow motion," says Willis, who now owns a public-relations firm in Decatur, Ga. "The shocked boss holding his champagne bottle up in the air as he hit the water and then my new wife says, 'What the hell are you doing?' "

Minter didn't find the pool toss funny. The dunking ruined an expensive new watch his wife had just given him for their anniversary. Dripping wet, he told his profusely apologetic lieutenant, "You're going to love Hahira." (That's a small Georgia town considered by some editors to be a place of exile.)

At work two days later, Willis brought his boss rich cigars and offered to pay for the watch. The gambit succeeded. The executive editor refused the offer and merely ribbed him.

"It worked out very well for me because I was trying to manage a staff of anti-establishment kids," Minter recollects. "They thought I was going to get a gun and shoot Ken Willis. When I didn't, they thought I was more human."

My new boss was equally magnanimous about my unintentional putdown and subsequent apology. He said he considered the remark a jest.

Grenny says that almost all eggface moments "are recoverable." But you don't get too many chances, and letting such missteps go uncorrected can be dangerous.

While employed by a Boston nonprofit in 1996, Diane Darling e-mailed an associate to complain that she disliked their supervisor. The colleague accidentally forwarded the message to that manager.

An apology didn't work. "There had been a lot of problems; this e-mail was kind of the last straw," recalls Darling, currently a Boston networking consultant. Her boss made her life miserable, and she quit six weeks later.