Marianne C. thought she was in a "safe" meeting where open discussion was encouraged and yet, following the meeting, she found herself in and out of the discipline process and shortly thereafter demoted—all because of one comment.

Pam S. witnessed a coworker sabotage his career when he slandered their workplace on his personal Facebook account. He was quickly turned in to HR and immediately terminated.

And then there's Sarah D. who was hired as a sales lead in a retail store. After both her managers left, she wrote to the regional manager to let her know she was "understaffed and overworked." The next day, Sarah was reprimanded for her "hostile" tone and "gross insubordination." Most damaging to the business was also being told that the possibility of any support was "out the window."

A new study by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, authors of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations and cofounders of VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty Companyshows that nearly every employee has either seen or suffered from a catastrophic comment like Marianne, Pam, and Sarah did.

83% have witnessed their colleagues say something that has had catastrophic results on their careers, reputations, and businesses.
Specifically, 83% have witnessed their colleagues say something that has had catastrophic results on their careers, reputations, and businesses. And 69% admit to personally committing a catastrophic comment.

Grenny and Maxfield also uncovered the top five most catastrophic comments people made. (Read participant's real-life stories illustrating these comments.)

1. Suicide by Feedback (23%): You thought others could handle the truth—but they couldn’t.

2. Gossip Karma (21%): You talked about someone or something in confidence with a colleague only to have your damning comments made public.

3. Taboo Topics (20%). You said something about race, sex, politics, or religion and others distorted it, misunderstood it, took it wrong, or used it against you.

4. Word Rage (20%). You lost your temper and used profanity or obscenities to make your point.

5. "Reply All" Blunders (10%). You accidentally shared something harmful via technology—for example, email, text, or virtual meeting tools.

6. Other (6%). All other uncouth and/or unfortunate comments.

The online poll of 780 employees shows just how damaging these slips of the tongue and momentary lapses of judgment can be on an individual's career:

  • 31% said it cost them a pay increase, a promotion, or their job.
  • 27% said it undercut or destroyed the working relationship.
  • 11% said it destroyed their reputation.

Maxfield says that while putting your foot in your mouth is easy to do, recovering from verbal mistakes actually takes skill. In fact, the data shows that more than one in four people (27%) lack the skills to smooth things over and only one in five are extremely confident in their ability to fix mistakes.

"It's no surprise these catastrophic comments happen," Maxfield says. "We're all bound to have bad days, misjudge the situation, or make a slip of the tongue. What is most concerning is our inability to recover in a way that actually repairs—rather than harms—relationships and careers."

Advice for Leaders

Beyond employees' lack of skill, Grenny urges leaders to create the kind of environment where people can safely speak up. As it stands, almost half (46%) say their workplace does not allow for mistakes or take apologies into account when people inadvertently put their foot in their mouth.

"While there are occasions when people's words paint a clear picture of their incompetence or unacceptable moral judgment, these instances are the exception to the rule," Grenny says.

Instead of punishing employees' candor, leaders need to build the kind of culture where anyone can safely speak up.
"Often, people speak up about issues they see as important to the business only to be punished for their honesty—even if it is controversial. Instead of punishing employees' candor, leaders need to build the kind of culture where anyone can safely speak up to anyone else, regardless of power or position. And in those times when they may step out of line, there should be a plan that allows them to recover and get back on track."

Grenny and Maxfield offer three tips to recover from catastrophic comments in a way that saves careers, improves relationships, and secures results.

1. You said something that was just wrong, rude, or completely inappropriate.

What's required: A clear, unrestrained apology. The bandage needs to be as large as the wound. If you aired your colorful disgust for your boss, a simple "I'm sorry" won't cut it. Others need to hear an apology as intense as their disgust for you at the moment.

2. You said something that was right, but it came across wrong.

What's required: While more complex, the apology must still match the fervor of the upset. You have three tasks: (1) Acknowledge that your message sounded as offensive as others took it to be. And don't move to step two until they're satisfied. (2) Say what you really think on the topic in the way you should have said it. (3) Repeat step one.

3. You said something you believe, but that you shouldn't have said in your position.

What's required: Again, you must apologize. If you stated an opinion that is not the opinion of your company, then you must apologize as though you don't believe what you said. This could sound disingenuous, but it's not. It isn't "you" that's apologizing, it's your position. So your apology is righting the real wrong—your irresponsible lapse of judgment in realizing you don't get to represent your company in any way you see fit.