Mistakes happen!

General Dwight D. Eisenhower had the following handwritten note in his pocket when he launched the D-Day attack on June 6, 1944 – in case his troops were driven back into the sea: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”

Making mistakes is part of being a good manager, and a good employee, because doing so can demonstrate that you’re pushing the envelope, taking reasoned risks to improve the product, process or service. I’m not advocating foolhardiness – rather, I’m suggesting that no one has a crystal ball that works all the time (at least no one I know!)

Unfortunately, some workplaces seem to have a culture that abhors any mistakes out of fear of the consequences. That’s really too bad, because such a workplace will never be able to excel.  And, if you find yourself in one of these – find a new job.

So, assuming you’ve made a mistake, what should you do? I suggest the following

1. Admit it fully – to your boss, your peers, your subordinates – whoever is affected by it. Take responsibility even when what you really want is for the earth to open up and swallow you, or to take a long one-way trip to anywhere but here. We’ve all been there. By admitting your mistake you’ll feel better because the personal energy taken up by covering it up is very costly. In addition, your employer will benefit because steps can be taken sooner rather than later to rectify it. 

2. Figure out how it happened and make that part of your explanation to others. The purpose of this is not to make excuses – it’s the opposite of making excuses. The purpose is to demonstrate you’re taking the situation seriously, and to learn what led to the mistake so you and others will not make it again.

3. Develop a solution to fix or respond to the mistake. Don’t just drop it on someone else. You spilled the milk, you clean it up. And, if it’s too big for you to do alone, be an integral part of the clean-up. If it’s outside of your control, offer to help in any way possible. For example, if you hired someone without checking references and that person steals from the employer – something you would have been alerted to had you checked references – offer to research how good reference checks are conducted and develop a template others can use for doing that.

4. Plan for the future by ensuring that you do not make the same mistake (or closely related mistakes) again. Put checks in place that will remind you how to do things differently next time. Share these with your boss and anyone else appropriate.

5. Generalize from the specific: think about other, similar situations that might arise and for which you should now be prepared. Plan for them, and share those plans with your boss and others. This is one of the most difficult things to do. I have encountered many employees who make a mistake (for example, telling an off-color sexual joke in the workplace) and are called on it. They get it – sort of. They no longer tell sexual jokes…now they only tell racial  jokes. To generalize would have meant that they not only understood they should quit telling sexual jokes, they understood they should quit telling any inappropriate jokes.  They have failed to generalize from the specific.

6. Let it go. Once you’ve admitted it, figured out how it happened, solved it and planned for the future – let it go. Nothing will be gained by dwelling on the past. Move on. Even with the best planning and thought, we all make mistakes. Expect that this will happen, and be ready for it. The challenge is not to avoid mistakes – the best way to do that, after all, is to do nothing. The challenge is to take calculated risks, make the best decisions we can. Then, take responsibility for and admit mistakes when they happen – which they will – and learn from each and every one.

How have you dealt with mistakes in your workplace? How does your workplace culture view mistakes? Let us know! ~Daphne Schneider

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