When you have to admit you made a mistake: 7 actions to take

We are in unprecedented times. We are juggling more than ever and in new ways we haven’t had to do before. There are times where I can focus intently and times where I cannot. Whether it be tuning out the landscaper down the street, my barking dog who alerts us every times someone gets a package delivered, endless meeting requests that pack my calendar or news from a friend or family member when something terrible happens. From the ordinary to the extraordinary, interruptions and stress can come from any direction.

Mistakes can happen when you are not focusing or they can happen because we make a wrong decision. When we have lost our focus, try these things to get back on track:

  • Stop what you are doing. If you are multi-tasking, definitely stop. I question those who say they can multi-task effectively. With the millions of little things pinging our attention at one time, just stop and re-collect your thoughts. Make time to think.
  • Make lists. I know some may be list-makers and some prefer to just wing it because they have an incredible memory. I have a terrible memory. The more post-its, Outlook task lists and notepads I have around, the better. Items with due dates that I review on a regular basis helps me keep my focus.
  • Focus on your physical well-being. Sleep, exercise and water can help you keep your focus. While I am not a health expert, I believe that all three are essential. I know this because when I skip one or more of this triangle, my energy, mood, and sharpness fade.

Sometimes, we make an error not due to lack of focus but because we made a bad decision. First, no one is perfect. Please accept this. Even if your colleague has the company’s longest wining streak, just know that person made a mistake somewhere along the way. We just haven’t seen it.

Sometimes, we don’t have all the information we need to make a good decision. Sometimes, we have to make a decision before we are ready. Whatever the cause, it is okay. Now, some mistakes have steeper results than others. Some mistakes mean we don’t release a product or service on time; others could result in lost money.

While we need to be present as much as possible in our jobs, things happen. Managers and leaders alike need to cut people some slack. Now, repeated mistakes, absent-mindedness, etc. is a different story. This needs to be addressed head on to prevent further mistakes but even the highest performers can let something slip or let something go they should not.

Here are some things you can do and not do when you find yourself audibly gasping after making a mistake.

1. Face it.
Don’t hide it. I have known colleagues in the past who tried to cover it up or distract the leader. Like every mystery or true crime show you have ever watched, they will find out! Admit it; own up to it. This actually displays awareness and integrity, which should matter to your leadership as well.

2. Don’t beat yourself up.
If you suffer from a bit of perfectionism, this could eat you up. Don’t let it. If you made the best decision at the time with the information you had and it turned out to be wrong, it is okay. Don’t second guess yourself. Accept it and move on. Beating yourself up will not make you look like a better employee. It will only hurt you and steal energy away from you and direct it toward bad feelings, which is extremely unproductive.

3. Document root cause.
If you flub something, take time to figure out what happened. We skip this all the time – be it a success or a stumbling. We rarely sit down and document what we did, what proved to be good or not so good. When you make a mistake, think about the circumstance, who was involved (or not involved), what was going on in your personal life, what other pressure s or deadlines were looming, what situations were in flux, what information did you have or not have. All of this can help you get to root cause…the crux as to why it was not the right way to go. If the root cause ends up being that I had five deadlines, a sick spouse and dogs whining at me, that’s okay. Remember: During these times people need compassion more than ever.

4. Involve others.
If appropriate, ask others their take on what happened and why it happened. Ask for advice on how they would handle the situation differently. Or, would they handle it differently? Sometimes you may get some validation on how you handled a situation even if it turned out to be a mistake. If you don’t haves a mentor, this is a good time to find one. having someone as your coach and go-to person when mistakes happen can be very productive. This person could help you work through what happened, why and how to either correct it or move on.

5. Try to correct it.
Some mistakes can actually be corrected. If this is the situation, correction could be a high priority. First, determine if you can correct the mistake. Second, determine how important it is to correct it. Some mistakes are minor. They may not feel minor to us because we had the responsibility to act and we made the mistake. But, sometimes spending the time to correct a mistake may not be worth it. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. Try and identify if we can correct and then will it make a material difference if I correct it.

6. Learn a lesson.
Determine how the mistake could be prevented. Document what you will do differently next time. Even if the mistake was due to being overwhelmed or too many items coming at you at home, where we work, figure out how to minimize distractions and how you could do this differently. We have all made mistakes in our day. I certainly have. The important thing is we need to figure out how not to make the same mistake again. This is the foundation of learning and growing. Sometimes the best, most impactful learning comes from making a mistake.

7. Pass on your wisdom.
If appropriate, share your story. Help others. If you learned a valuable lesson on what not to do, share it others. It may help them. You would be surprised how many people are in the same boat. If you share your lessons, then the mistake become a learning opportunity for more than just you.

When we make a mistake, it can be devastating especially if it is a mistake that could have been easily prevented. This happens to the best of us. Find the root cause, make a note, share your story and shrug it off. You can always do better tomorrow.

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