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Dealing With Gaffes at Work

02/12/2014 10:33 GMT | Updated 31/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Have you succumbed to the dreaded "foot in mouth" disease? There seems to be a lot of it about at the moment particularly affecting politicians, CEOs and sports personalities. It can be very incapacitating in the workplace so if you've already gone down with it or feel the symptoms coming on, I have some tips to help.

1. Act quickly

Don't stand there paralysed by embarrassment. Move quickly. Retrieve the offending email or document immediately and clarify what you meant to say rather than what you actually said. The less time people have to reflect upon your gaffe and draw their own conclusions, the better!

2. Apologise gracefuly

Sorry may be the hardest word according to Elton John - but it's still an effective one when you want to repair a gaffe. However, it needs to be sincere and fulsome otherwise it doesn't work, does it Lord Rennard?

3. Minimise the audience

In the age of the viral tweet and email, your humiliation could delight your whole organisation and potentially the whole country if your colleagues view it as funny enough. Speak directly to anyone who knows about your gaffe and make them promise to keep it confidential. Hopefully they will like or respect you enough to do so.

4. Deflect the blame

You could try and play the victim - it was someone else's fault or it was just events conspiring to make you look like the bad guy. The actor Jonah Hill used this tactic particularly well when he defended his abusive behaviour to a photographer by saying that he was being hounded by paparazzi and he "wasn't good at being a famous person". Poor Jonah!

5. I meant to do that...

Pretend that there was a serious point that you were trying to convey. Acknowledge that it may initially have been articulated rather clumsily but it was a legitimate expression of some concerns you have or a desire to challenge pre-conceived thinking.

6. Claim you've learned from it.

It's difficult to be angry with someone who admits they were wrong and says that they have learnt from it. The Microsoft CEO Satya Nardella used this tactic following his comments that women should rely on karma for a pay rise. Has he seen the light? Who knows but he has probably learnt from it - even if it's to just to be more canny about his audiences in future.

7. Beware social media

You may succeed only in drawing more attention to your gaffe if you seek to defend yourself on social media. Don't give the trolls more ammunition. It might be better to minimise its digital footprint by keeping a dignified silence and hopefully it will get buried in the mass of all the other trivia that circulates daily.

8. Sense of humour

Being able to laugh at your own idiocy is very endearing to the rest of us who are usually just thankful that it didn't happen to us. Retain your sense of humour, treat your indignity with comic grace and you are likely to diffuse any conflict. Boris Johnson has forged a political career on this basis.

9. You'll survive

Everyone makes gaffes. Yes they're embarrassing - but you'll survive. Tony "I want my life back" Hayward has continued to have a successful career post-BP. While politicians like David "the queen purred" Cameron and Ed "forgot the deficit" Milliband prove that no-one is gaffe immune. People will judge you not on the gaffe, but on how well you deal with it and what they thought of you in the first place.

10. Gaffe avoidance tactics

You are likely to decrease your propensity for gaffes if you use social media with extreme caution, avoid sending emails when emotional and resist all communications with the outside world when drunk or lonely in a hotel room. If all that fails, then just make sure you have good relationships with the key people at work and hopefully they'll forgive you.

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