How Do You Manage Your Mistakes at Work?

Managing your mistakes is a measure of your readiness for more significant responsibilities

By David Cox, SHRM-SCP | October 9, 2018


We all make mistakes. If you feel you’re an exception to this rule, you’re either delusional or have failed to become involved in opportunities for learning new competencies (which by the way, is also a mistake). I agree with legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden who once described “mistakes” as “the stepping stones to growth where one discovers new ideas and learns great lessons.”

An objective view of our mistakes

I would characterize most of the mistakes I’ve observed throughout my career in the workplace as relatively minor. They involved only a few people and required little time and money to correct. However, some mistakes were more complicated and needed more people, time, resources, and money to fix them.

Some of the mistakes I’ve observed have been critical, resulting in a significant financial loss with considerable time, materials, and human resources required to correct the problem and mitigate the damage. Such damages might include lousy press, a loss of long-time customers/clients, and the potential fallout from the termination of whoever is found to be responsible.

There is not a standard formula for managing all shapes and sizes of mistakes, but I recommend that a good comprehensive plan include the following five elements.

  1. Take responsibilityYou’ll save time and earn respect by acknowledging your specific role in the mistake and taking appropriate responsibility. Don’t try to blame or assign responsibility to others. Leaders are not immune to making mistakes. Taking appropriate responsibility is
  2. Correct your mistakeTake whatever steps are necessary to correct the mistake. There may be problems that resulted from it, but in most cases, you’ll have more credibility in resolving related issues if you fix it ASAP.
  3. Explain how you’ll avoid making the same mistake againIf there is one good thing about a mistake, it’s the opportunity to figure out what went wrong so you can make sure it never happens again. Once you’ve learned this lesson, you can share it with the parties involved to restore confidence.
  4. Understand that the goal of managing mistakes is to restore confidence.I’m amazed at the number of employers and employees I’ve met who feel that the goal of managing mistakes is to obtain forgiveness. Typical remarks include:
    • I’m sorry
    • Please forgive me
    • It’s not my fault
    • Why does this keep happening to me?
    • You know I’m an excellent employee

    In this approach, you apologize, blame, excuse, etc. You focus on your mistake and your need for forgiveness.

    Consider the difference if the goal of managing mistakes is to restore confidence. “This mistake was my fault and is my responsibility. I’ve corrected the mistake and am working to resolve some additional problems that occurred as a result. Since I now know what went wrong, I can assure you, and all involved, that this mistake will never happen again.”

    In this approach, you correct a mistake and make sure it doesn’t happen again. You demonstrate leadership, your willingness to take responsibility, and the ability to manage your mistakes. So, rather than asking for forgiveness that you may not receive, you proactively work to restore the confidence of all parties in you.

  5. Correct mistakes as quickly as possibleThere is no value in prolonging the aftermath of a mistake. Repairing the fallout and solving the problems it created will minimize the resources required to fix it. Moreover, the sooner you can effectively deal with this, the sooner you can return to the regular routines of daily operations with no further damage to your reputation or credibility.
  6. Conclusion

    You don’t have to view your mistakes as failures. In many instances, they’re merely the process of eliminating ideas and methods that didn’t work to find those that do. Nevertheless, you need to evaluate the cost and potential fallout of your mistakes objectively. In fact, an objective look at past mistakes at work may be essential to learning how to manage similar situations in the future more effectively.

    Up next: Regaining Credibility at Work

David Cox


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