How to Recover from a Personal WikiLeaks
This post was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.
Hillary Clinton recently wrapped up her Middle East apology tour in an effort to repair diplomatic relations with the Arab world. Months after WikiLeaks rogue founder Julian Assange leaked hundreds of thousands of classified cables, some of which disparaged Arab leaders and diplomats, the State Department is still working to contain the crisis.
As unprecedented and large-scale as the WikiLeaks episode has been, on some level we can all identify with the it: We know we shouldn’t talk about others behind their backs; we’ve all been warned about the dangers of gossip. But even though we know better, there are very few of us who’ve never said something regretful, callous or thoughtless about someone else.
And of course, as with the leaked cables, those comments can come back to bite us. If you’ve ever been caught in the act of spilling a secret or giving voice to something you never intended to air, you know how devastating a personal WikiLeaks can be. Getting called out for talking about a colleague behind their back is awful (I overheard you mention to Gina the other day that the team would be better off without me). Badmouthing your friend after (not quite) hanging up the phone while he listens on the other end of the line is equally horrible (he’s not there; he’s never there. If he were home instead of out partying we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. Beeep.)
When your innermost thoughts or feelings suddenly find a public forum, here’s the best you can do to recover:
- Eat crow.
- Confront the issue.
- Commit to better conflict resolution next time.
Depending on the degree of the injustice, the magnanimity of the person slighted and the amount of grace and honesty you can muster after the fact, you just may have a chance to salvage the relationship.
If you’re the one caught gossiping, maligning or outing someone else’s secret, you don’t have much of a leg to stand on. The worst thing you can do is try to deny the slip up or justify your behavior. The best course of action is to simply “man up” and accept responsibility for your lapse in judgment. Offer a heartfelt apology and emphasize the fact that you didn’t intend to hurt your friend or colleague’s feelings.
Erica, I’m so sorry for talking about you like that. I never meant to hurt your feelings and I would take it back if I could. I didn’t mean what I said.
Confront the Issue
My four-year old daughter uses her “bugs” and “wishes” at pre-school. She and her classmates are encouraged to handle confrontation with their words: it bugs me when you pull my hair, I wish you would keep your hands to yourself. The first time I heard this phrase, I was amazed by its brilliance and its simplicity.
Once you’ve been outed, it’s important not to brush off the real issue at hand. Perhaps a friend’s erratic or callous behavior has been bothering you for months; your colleague didn’t give you credit for an important client win or your sister hasn’t been pulling her weight taking care of an elderly parent. Whatever cruel twist of fate caused the debacle in the first place, harness the courage and strength to address the issue head on. State clearly what has been bothering you and offer your take on how to make things better.
Jennifer, I’m so sorry you’re overheard the conversation — I was wrong to talk about you that way. The truth is, however, I’ve been upset for a while. I don’t understand why you cut me out of the Del Monte deal — I wish you would have included me in the correspondence and key meetings and I hope you’ll do so going forward.
Commit to Handling Grievances Differently Next Time
Once you’ve apologized, groveled and confronted the real issue at hand — you need to work to regain your friend or colleague’s trust. Commit to handling conflict more productively going forward and make a pledge to air grievances up front. Promise to speak directly to your friend or colleague about problems instead of complaining to third parties.
I was wrong to talk to Carolyn and Steve instead of just confronting you and I do apologize. I promise to never do that again — next time I have an issue; I’ll come to you directly. I’ve certainly learned my lesson.
Good things do come of bad; this lapse in judgment just may work to your advantage. Consider the actual leak as your reset button on the relationship: it will have forced you to deal with whatever pent-up burden or angst you’ve been harboring. If you handle the gaffe with honesty and sincerity, you’ll have an actual chance of fixing the problem at hand and hopefully repairing the relationship.