Managing Mistakes at Work: An Effective Five-Step Process
Planning how to manage your mistakes proactively is essential to restoring your credibility and demonstrating effective leadership
David Cox | July 23, 2019
Managing mistakes at work: The blame game
Managing mistakes at work is often an identifying mark of successful business and organizational leaders. They objectively accept their fallibility and are prepared to overcome potential problems they may have unintentionally created. Unfortunately, when I hear employees and management acknowledge mistakes in the workplace, too often, their reason for doing so is to blame someone else.
Managing mistakes at work: It’s about demonstrating leadership
When company officials deny responsibility for a mistake, they willingly abdicate their leadership roles. If you’re going to lead an organization, accepting responsibility is inescapable. Furthermore, every employee involved in a mistake is accountable for any aspect that was within his/her span of control. Any employee who denies this responsibility is not ready for advancement to a management/leadership role. Leaders are not immune to making mistakes, but I assure you, everyone is waiting and watching to see how effectively you’ll respond to the situation.
Adopt a plan for managing your mistakes
There is not a standard formula for managing every potential mistake. However, you can learn to respond to your mistakes in a way that will boost your credibility in the organization. I recommend creating a plan that includes the following five steps.
1. Accept responsibility
You’ll save time and earn respect within the organization by accepting responsibility for the role you played in the mistake. Then, you can respond and begin to take the necessary actions to correct it. Don’t ever try to blame or assign responsibility for a mistake you’ve made to someone else. Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, one of the winningest college basketball coaches in NCAA history once said, “You can make mistakes, but you aren’t a failure until you start blaming others for those mistakes.”
2. Take initiative
Take an active role in correcting the mistake you’ve made. There’s a chance that other problems may have resulted from this error. If so, these may also require your attention. Nevertheless, you’ll demonstrate leadership and build further credibility if you take the initiative to correct your mistakes rather than waiting for someone else to do it for you.
3. Learn how to avoid making the same mistake again
If there is one positive thing you can say about a mistake, it provides an opportunity for learning. What went wrong? What do we do now? How can we avoid this same mistake in the future? You can use what you’ve learned to make sure this mistake never happens again. Moreover, you’ll be able to take this lesson and share it with everyone involved. Doing so will undoubtedly help restore their confidence in you.
4. Realize that the goal of managing mistakes is to restore the confidence of others in you
I’ve met many employers and employees who feel that once they’ve made a mistake, the solution is to seek the “forgiveness” from those to whom they’re accountable. Typical remarks I’ve heard include:
- I’m so sorry
- Please, please forgive me
- I don’t understand what went wrong
- It wasn’t my fault
- You can’t blame me for the failure of others
The above approach encourages you to apologize, blame, and excuse.
Suppose the objective of managing mistakes is not to avoid responsibility, but instead, to restore confidence. If so, the following response would seem more appropriate: “This mistake was my fault. As such, it’s my responsibility. I’ve corrected the mistake, and am working to resolve some additional problems that occurred as a result. Now that I know what went wrong, I can assure you, and everyone involved, that I will never make this mistake again.”
Using this approach, you correct the mistake and restore the confidence of others in you. Additionally, you gain an opportunity to demonstrate responsibility and leadership. Therefore, rather than asking for forgiveness that you may not receive, you proactively work to restore the confidence of others in you. As a result, you move beyond the mistake and build even greater credibility.
5. Correct mistakes as quickly as possible
There is no value in extending a mistake by defending, excusing it, pretending everything’s okay when the outcomes indicate otherwise. Correcting the mistake ASAP and solving the problems it created will help minimize the cost (time and money) required to fix it. Moreover, the sooner you resolve the issue, the sooner you can return to the routines of daily operations without further damage to your reputation.
Managing mistakes may prove the key to your future success at work
I’ve met a surprising number of business and organizational leaders who attribute their success, in part, to a “mistake” that advanced their careers. Obviously, it wasn’t the mistake that created a more successful career path. It was the decisive actions they took to correct the mistake and continue making progress.
I’m convinced that preparing for the inevitability of mistakes will give you a head start in overcoming them. Undoubtedly, adopting a plan for managing your mistakes at work may help you more effectively respond to similar circumstances in the future.