The road to redemption: How to redeem yourself after failure

June 2, 2024

Pity Sam Pitroda. Last month, he made an unfortunate comment on a podcast, causing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to slam him publicly. He ended up resigning from the Indian Overseas Congress. What did he say? In a podcast, Pitroda thought he was promoting the diversity of India. In his rather tone-deaf comment, he said that Indian “people in the east look like the Chinese, people in the west look like the Arabs, people in the north look like, maybe, white and people in the south look like Africans.”

First rule of public speaking, Sam. Have a filter.

This article is about redemption; about recovering from mistakes and failures, small and big. It happens to all of us. No escape. What we do after the mistake is what matters.

This is not the first time that men (and these are mostly men) have said what they thought were perfectly normal remarks—except they weren’t. My theory is that mothers pamper boys and don’t give them endless criticisms like they do their daughters so boys and men don’t think too much about what they say. In 2014, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was speaking to a group of women.  When asked what advice he would give women who were uncomfortable asking for a raise, he replied that it wasn’t a question of asking for a raise but rather trusting that the system would reward you appropriately. The remark drew flak from all quarters with many on Twitter lambasting Nadella for not knowing or realising that the tech world was inequitable to women.

Nadella acted swiftly. He apologised publicly. He wrote an email to his staff and apologised within the confines of his company. He said that he had answered the question all wrong.

This is the first truth of redeeming yourself after a verbal gaffe. Accept your mistake publicly. Say you are sorry—without any buts and then act to redress the error of your ways.

In his book, “Excellent Advice for Living,” the founder of Wired magazine, Kevin Kelly gives some great advice for how to apologise. “Don’t ruin an apology with an excuse,” he says. “A proper apology consists of conveying the 3 Rs: regret (genuine empathy with the other) responsibility (not blaming someone else) and remedy (your willingness to fix it).”He could be speaking to me. After a fight at home, either my husband or I will choose to—or have to—take the first step towards an apology. Often this will be a half-assed apology. Yes, I blamed you for something that wasn’t your fault, I will say, but….there is always the ‘but,’ the excuse followed by virtue-signalling or more blaming. “You always do this. How was I to know that this time was different? I put up with so much from your friends, family, parents, you name it.

Redemption is a course correction.  It applies to human life in all its glory.  Byju’s the company has to find a way to redeem itself.  Start-up founders whose bets failed have to figure out how to explain this to the employees that they have to lay off.  How each company handles a mistake, big or small, will depend on the circumstances and character of the leaders. Whether you use social media to apologise like Apple did or send personal condolence letters to victims’ families like the Toyota CEO did after their cars malfunctioned, redeeming yourself or your company has to be quick, fulsome, specific and sincere.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to heal the wounds of apartheid led to Nelson Mandela becoming the leader of the ‘rainbow nation’ of South Africa. Countries have used the same formula of a clear apology follow by action to redress the wounds of the past. For individuals like us, the situation (surely) has lower stakes but can often be as tense. What if you fought with your neighbour and discovered that you were in the wrong? What if you knowingly fudged your expense reports and your boss found out? What if you bumped a car in your office parking lot and drove off only to be caught by the video camera? We all make such mistakes. What we do after is what matters. Easy to say—I know.  Hard to do—yes, I know that too, very acutely.

These days, I try really hard to follow these rules. When I apologise to my husband and feel the urge to explain (again) that I am right, I force myself to shut my mouth. I literally walk away to get a drink of water, come back and deliver the fulsome apology without excuses. In my work life, I try my best not to take shortcuts. If I do, I try to be transparent about it. “I am sending this same proposal to two clients, just FYI,” I will say. And I have learned to swallow my ego and apologise.  I think of it as taking the high road.

The word redemption comes from the Latin root, ‘to buy back.’ I try to remember that by apologising, I will maybe feel small in the work context. But I will get back something priceless: my peace of mind.

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