By Anja van den Berg
While most people accept that slip-ups are unavoidable, no one likes to be responsible for them. The good news is that mistakes, even big ones, don’t have to leave a permanent mark on your career. In fact, most contribute to organisational and personal learning; they are an essential part of experimentation and a prerequisite for innovation.
According to Paul Schoemaker, research director for the Mack Centre for Technological Innovation and co-author of the book Brilliant Mistakes, most people tend to overreact to their slip-ups.
As a result, they may be tempted to hide their mistakes, or even worse, continue down paths that have proven unproductive. This approach can be dangerous and expensive. It is much better to accept mistakes, learn from them, and move on. Here’s what to do when you’ve made a (big) mistake at work:
- Admit and acknowledge
First and foremost, it’s critical to be transparent, candid, and own up to the error, says Amy Gallo, the author of the Harvard Business Review Guide to Dealing with Conflict at Work.
“Don’t try to blame others. Even if it was a group mistake, acknowledge your role in it. In cases where someone was hurt, issue an apology. However, don’t apologise too much or be defensive. The key is to be action-oriented and focus on the future. How will your misstep be remedied? What will you do differently going forward?”
- Present a plan to correct the problem – and to prevent it from happening again
Next, explain what you’re doing to remedy the mistake, including its substantive impacts (money, time, processes) and relational impacts (feelings, reputation, trust). Be open to feedback about what you’re doing. Also, tell those affected by your error what you’ve learned about yourself and what you’re going to do differently in the future. By demonstrating that you’ve changed as a result of your mistake, you reassure your superiors, peers, and direct reports that you can be trusted with equally important tasks or decisions in the future.
“If the error was a result of a poor decision, explain to your boss and other interested parties how you will avoid making the same or a similar misstep in the future,” Schoemaker explains. “You have to respond quickly before people make judgments about your competence or expertise.”
- Let trusted support networks advise you
A strong support network can help you survive a serious mistake made at work, says Christopher Gergen, the director of the Entrepreneurial Leadership Initiative at Duke University and co-author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives.
“Our research shows that a healthy support network has three components: authentic trusting relationships, a diverse range of perspectives, and is reciprocal.
“Ask current or former colleagues or people outside the organisation for their perspective on the mistake and what they believe you can do to recover. They are likely to have some useful advice about how to frame the error and restore your reputation.”
The best kind of mistake is where the costs are low, but the learning is high, Schoemaker says. Unfortunately, not all mistakes are created equal. “If you are going to pay the price for making the mistake, you need to get the learning.”
Gergen acknowledges that this is far easier in a learning culture than in a performance-focused culture, in which mistakes are often viewed more harshly. “But,” he advises, “regardless of the office environment, you need to figure out how you can translate the mistake from a liability into an asset.”
Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2010/04/youve-made-a-mistake-now-what
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