handling mistakes

What is the Key to Handling Mistakes at Work?

Written By:

Lynn Whitbeck

How do I address mistakes in the workplace? Whether I was the one who made a mistake or a co-worker is the one in error, how do we resolve them and move forward professionally? – Fernanda in San Diego, CA

Answer:

Maya Angelou said, “People may not remember exactly what you did or said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” This is a tenet I live by, how I nurture every relationship and approach opportunities. Rather than allow mistakes to be energy leaks, I seek to reset and course correct.

Vulnerability

Mistakes are one of the easiest ways we reveal our vulnerability. They are the part of our identify which feels exposed as incompetent or our self-esteem attacked. For a few years, I struggled with perfectionism. Mistakes were an embarrassment, and it was easy for my ire to escalate when I made an error. Further, my perfectionism made me more vulnerable to self-blame. Like many, it was easy for my emotions to trigger a negative response internally, and on occasion out loud.

Many people struggle with their own mistakes. It can be hard to control your feelings, and in extreme cases, individuals lash out in anger or denial. I was lucky to learn early on how acceptance, humility, and choice could move me past the blame game. You can, too.

Ask Lynn - Handling Mistakes - My Bad

Acceptance

I’m not going to say never, but I rarely get worked up when mistakes occur. Instead, I quickly accept the situation. I focus my energy on resolution and root cause corrections. I give myself and others the gift of kindness and forgiveness. With this reset, I recognize there is an opportunity to make it better.

Humility

Who amongst us can’t find at least one time we made a colossal mistake and it became a favorite story? Sharing those stories enables us to laugh at ourselves and embrace our humility. Here’s my story:

I was flying to meet my boss in Chicago so we could take a connecting flight together. For the first time ever, I completely mis-calculated when I needed to be on the road to make my flight. Yep, I missed it. My boss flew on and waited almost three hours at a small regional airport for me to show up. I was mortified, embarrassed, angry, horrified… the list goes on. A truly toxic brew. But, when I arrived and started to fall all over myself apologizing, my boss held up his hand and said, “It’s fine. These things happen. I was able to relax, have a drink, and catch up on my reading.”

In that moment, he showed me how to respond with grace and kindness. He was giving me the dignity and respect we all owe to another human being.

Ask Lynn - Handling Mistakes - Choice

Choice

As you can see in my story, my boss made a choice to tap into his value center. He chose positivity and making the best of the situation. It illustrates how we all have a choice in how we respond to mistakes, and we have a responsibility not to make it personal or about winning. I choose to identify what happened, how we can fix, and understanding of why it occurred. Then the most important piece: to work together on the adjustments needed to the who, where, and when.

Navigating Mistakes

When addressing mistakes successfully, you are demonstrating leadership, creating a culture of belonging and positive thinking. Start by acknowledging the error without the blame word – “you.” It’s not personal; it’s an opportunity to course correct. It does not matter if you or someone else made the mistake; be kind, accept, and forgive. Never waste energy on right vs. wrong.

Seek solutions to repair or fix the issue in the now. When appropriate, ask for ideas and suggestions. This can be a team-building moment that reinforces a culture of belonging. Once the immediate gap is filled, examine how you can eliminate or minimize a repeat. Then put those actions in motion. Choose to work towards a win-win outcome.

How You Made Them Feel

When you embrace your humanity and value center, you will grow your ability to respond to mistakes with calm and grace. You will feel better by how you treat yourself and others. Your co-workers and direct reports know you will work with them to find a solution, and they will be empowered to expand their thinking, choosing to discover a better way forward.

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