We all have skeletons in our closet. Some are real, some are not. Some were put there by others, some we put there ourselves. For better or worse, they are our past.
What’s in your closet?
Probably youthful indiscretions, lapses in judgment and poor choices. Most amount to nothing. But be prepared, because the odds are getting better that your closet will see the light of day. The combination of today’s schadenfreude—the pleasure derived from another’s misfortune—and access to events long forgotten, is so potent that everyone needs a strategy.
Here’s a strategy to solve the sticky problems presented by our skeletons. Six steps: Contingency, Containment, and Communication; Resolution, Reconciliation, and Recovery. C cubed, R cubed.
A caveat before beginning. If your closet includes criminal activity or hateful acts, then you must pay the price. If you betrayed a sacred trust, that’s on you. Period. This piece is for all of us who have acted—naively, impulsively, innocently, even stupidly—but without malice.
Contingency requires examining your closet. What embarrassing things have you done? DUI? Sexting? Insensitive remarks? Bit of liberty with the taxes? What evidence is there? Yearbook pictures, randy snaps, misdemeanor raps? If you posted it to social media it’s still out there. If there’s a formal record, it lurks, somewhere, forever. Don’t know it, can’t manage it.
Start with a thorough inventory of your skeletons. Some of them are buried deep in the closet, so dig. Some you may have forgotten; others you may want to forget. Be honest here. It’s hard to root out our unsavory bits and piece, but it’s for the best.
Containing matters is a proactive approach. If you have hard copies of embarrassing material, shred them. They may have been funny when you were a bartender or in college Greek life or at a rave, but do you want your families, colleagues, maybe the press, to see them? If in a momentary lapse of judgment you sent an indelicate photo, there is no need to keep it on your phone or your computer. It’s not nostalgic; it’s nuclear.
Develop a plan of action before something embarrassing is found out. Think about and write out a response, in advance. Hope you never need it, but if you do, you won’t be speaking off the cuff, and can control the conversation to minimize damage.
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Containment also includes not implicating yourself further. The old saw, “Give a man enough rope and he’ll hang himself,” persists because it is true. You did something stupid and embarrassing? The less said the better. “It was stupid and embarrassing.” That’s it.
This is harder than you might think. When confronted with previous imprudence, our instinct is to explain the situation in order to establish context. We believe if we can establish context we will be understood and forgiven in due course. But context is hard to establish, and even if it is, some people won’t care (remember schadenfreude?). The less said, the better.
Communication may be the most important. Communication may seem contrary to containment, but as the controversy continues the time for conveying comes. Gather and corroborate the facts. Who, what, when, where, and how, are all essential. Accept that you may not be the best person to be talking to interested constituencies. Many organizations have a public affairs office that interacts with others. A spokesperson allows a single point of contact, and separation from the principals involved, and that helps prevent us from digging deeper holes.
Jussie Smollett discovered this the hard way. He refused to share his phone records, and yet talked freely with the press. His desire to be interviewed by the media, and his decision to double-down, only made everyone more suspicious.
Honesty is the best policy. If you screwed up, admit it. If there is an explanation, offer it – but be brief and careful not to appear to be shifting responsibility to someone else. Most of us have made enough mistakes that we are willing to forgive and forget another who makes an honest and sincere apology. If you repeatedly misrepresent, as Lance Armstrong, Michael Cohen, Jussie Smollett and others have done, do not expect people to believe you when reckoning. Polls show that 73% of those who watched Michael Cohen did not believe his testimony.
Resolve the issue. Whatever you did, to the extent possible, fix it. If it was something left undone, finish it. If it was something that was in error, correct it. If it was an offensive post or untoward picture, delete it. It is possible to right latter-day wrongs.
Reconcile with those who were harmed. Hopefully there are none. But if there are, make your apologies and make amends. Genuine contriteness goes a long way. Understand that asking forgiveness does not ensure absolution, but it will help relieve the guilt and anxiety that may gnaw at you. You will want to reconcile with yourself too. Self-inflicted wounds can be the hardest to heal.
Recovery may be difficult. You may suffer long term taint. You may have doors shut in your face, opportunities taken away, your legacy diluted. Cycles of penitence vary, often for reasons outside our control and disproportionate to the impropriety. Recovery of reputation and relationships will take time. Be patient, and consider the whole unpleasant business as a chance to rehabilitate yourself. Create a new and wiser you.
In today’s hyper-connected world, it may not a be a question of whether your skeletons will be discovered, but a question of when. For most of us, our past possesses some sticky situations. Dealing with them requires a strategy. Which begs the question…
What’s in your closet?
Bartholomew J. Timm is a former member of the School of Business faculty at Georgetown University and George Washington University (GWU). He has held a number of senior executive positions serving as a CEO, COO, and CFO, and is a retired United States Navy Officer.
James R. Bailey is a professor of leadership at George Washington University’s School of Business. He is the author of five books, over 50 articles, is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review, and writes a column for Psychology Today named At the Helm.