What Leaders Should Do When They Make a Mistake - Higher Ground Consulting Group, LLC
April 25, 2019
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MistakeEveryone, including leaders, will make a mistake at work. Mine often occur when I’m trying to do too many things at once or moving too quickly to complete a task.

I recently forgot to email a training proposal to one of my clients. The project would be a significant boost to my 2019 fiscal budget. My memory lapse wasn’t just a few hours or days, but an entire month. I only discovered the error while trying to locate the initial sent email so I could reference its contents when following up on the proposal status. Imagine my dismay to realize there was no such email!

There is typically a price to pay for workplace mistakes. Sometimes the consequences are small, like receiving negative constructive feedback or needing to redo all the work. Other times the penalties for a mistake are more serious. A leader might lose out on a coveted promotion or suffer damage to his or her reputation. I think most of us do expect some level of punishment for our blunders.

There are some simple things every leader can do when a mistake is made at work, or anywhere else. I employed all four steps in response to my never-sent client proposal.

Take responsibility. This seems obvious, but too many leaders try to shift the blame to others. Sometimes there are others who could have contributed to the problem, but we must still accept our share of culpability. The opening line in my client email was an acknowledgement that I had messed up. Ouch!

Make things right. Another common-sense course of action, but not always practiced by leaders. When we make a mistake, we are the ones who should fix things as best we can. Fortunately, the client appreciated my candor and effort to quickly get the proposal back on track.

Own it. Moving beyond the mistake is easier when a leader can embrace the consequences. This creates a sense of closure so the transgression doesn’t get in the way of relationships or become a pattern of behavior. My client and I just laughed about my memory lapse a few days ago when our paths crossed at an event.

Learn from it. Mistakes can be powerful teachers. A mistake allows us to assess why it happened and take steps to prevent the same thing in the future. We can use it to improve a process, strengthen a relationship, and earn the respect of direct reports or coworkers. My lesson learned has already changed how I document the status of my proposals.

This workplace mistake won’t be my last. No leader is perfect and shouldn’t be held to that standard in the first place. But when a leader fails to practice these steps in response to a mistake, the people they lead will begin to judge them more harshly.

A mistake isn’t a laughing matter, but when handled well, it can allow us to laugh at ourselves years after the incident.

Photo Credit: istockphoto.com

Ken Byler

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