If you’ve been in the workforce long enough chances are you’ve made more than a few mistakes. Your ability to recover depends on the type of blunder, it’s size and impact, the company culture, and how you approach the aftermath.
Content or Context
Many mistakes are job-specific, content-based errors which involve not knowing what or how to do something. While typically associated with those new to the workforce or position, given ever-expanding role responsibilities, the pace of technology development, and simple human fallibility, they can happen to any one at any time. These errors are usually remedied via training, mentoring, or on the job experience.
Other mistakes, such as abrasive communication, are behavior-based and can arise from one’s natural tendencies or emerge when people operate under stress. Mistakes can also be due to an employee’s “blind spots” – a skill or competency such as cross-cultural communication that the person doesn’t know he/she lacks. In both cases, coaching and feedback can help the employee make the needed adjustment.
Assuming you didn’t burn down a factory, irreparably damage the organization’s reputation, or put the company in financial or legal peril, mistakes are usually forgiven. Of course that is based in large part on company culture.
Some have a putative approach where even small mistakes can stay with you, tainting your professional brand and affecting your status in talent review and succession planning discussions. Other organizations see small to mid-sized mistakes as part of the learning process. Here, managers will be interested in how you overcame the error, what you learned, and whether you are able to adjust your approach so it doesn’t repeat in the future.
How to Handel a Mistake
Understanding what you did and how the organization might react are good first steps, but the key to managing a mistake relies on the actions you take before and after its occurrence. To limit the number and impact of errors while simultaneously maximizing post blunder learning, follow these steps.
- Know Yourself: When possible try to anticipate mistakes before they occur. If you’re new to a role or have a historical skill gap such as finance, you might be inclined to make a content related mistake. If however, your skills are current, but a crunching deadline looms, you could be more susceptible to a stress-induced blunder involving for example, interpersonal communication.
- Fess Up: Admitting the mistake immediately is always the way to go. When the error is known you can rally the support you need to get things under control.
- Avoid Surprises: It’s never a good idea to surprise your manager with bad news. Let him or her know about the issue as soon as possible.
- Communicate in Person: Don’t compound the problem with poor communication. When the fit hits the shan opt for in person first, then phone if at a different location. Only resort to email if time zones or travel make it necessary.
- Take Accountability: When explaining the mistake stick to the facts, take accountability, and come with a plan for both addressing it.
- Consider the Long-term Fix: Once the immediate issue is resolved meet with your manager to debrief the situation (assuming a large error) and take the lead on designing a process to ensure the mistake is not repeated. You can take this a step further by transferring this knowledge so that others learn from your mistake. Doing this can transform your brand from blunderer to expert.
- Repair Relationships: Regardless of the type and size of the mistake, consider those who were impacted. For large blunders, an apology followed by a process improvement goes a long way toward mending fences. You can use the same process for a smaller mistake or one that affected a single person, but in those cases focus first on individual and repairing the relationship over time.
- Consider Your Next Move: Everyone makes little mistakes – an embarrassing misspelling on an email or a note that comes across different than intended. They might require a clarification or no action at all. There are few “career killer” mistakes and when they happen, you’ll know. Most errors are in the messy middle. The best approach is to take your ego out of the equation and do what is best for the company and your counterpart. Mistakes erode trust, but how you handle them can actually make the bond stronger. If they move on post apology, great. If not, and you think the issue will be a drag on your career progression it might be best to change companies.
We all make mistakes, but few take accountability and the action required to learn from them. Do that and you’ve earned forgiveness. Whether it’s granted or not is another matter.
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