It’s Okay to Mess Up – But I wish I didn’t

Don’t you just hate it when you mess up and some do-gooder colleague says don’t worry, we all make mistakes. The trouble is they are right, none of us are infallible, we all have or will have blown it at some time or another, somewhere, somehow, some way, in spite of all our best effort we mess up despite our best intentions. I still remember the fiasco of sending the wrong job offer to the wrong candidate and worse agreeing a workforce pay deal before getting final approval from the CEO. It’s tempting to think other colleagues especially top leaders become great at what they do because they are error-free, they don’t make the mistakes we make, they are flawless. That somehow they have special unerring powers that make them perfect, but that’s not true, they do mess up, just like normal people like you and me they do blow it occasionally but surprisingly, what makes them different is not that they don’t make mistakes. What makes them different is how they handle their mistakes when they do make them. I’ve considered it a personal challenge to watch, listen, record and learn from the action’s words and deeds of those who seem able to use their mistakes to improve themselves and to increase their reputations

In an amazing Ridley “Believe it or Not” like adventure I have captured what I believe are the four key actions of those who use their mistakes to develop themselves. These four simple steps to handling mistakes result in not only avoiding the ridicule of others but actually increase people’s respect and admiration for how they’ve handled it. And best yet, following this approach to handling mistakes is more than just a work tip it’s also a full life tip.

So, what do they do differently when they get it wrong? Or alternatively what should we do differently when we get it wrong? Well before we have a look at what they do lets remind ourselves that whatever else happens we need to battle our natural Instincts and push back on any thought we might have that we could hide it, hope no one notices or blame it on someone else. Battling these three instincts ensures we are already overcoming the problems that sink most people when it comes to owning mistakes. Once we have done this the next step is to look at what our colleagues do that is so different and try and understand their whole approach to errors in the hope it might change how we deal with our errors and faux pas’s.

1. Be the First to Break the News
A lesson I learned very early in my career came when a man who became my mentor and guide told me he only had one rule “No surprises”. He even had a sign on his office door that you saw each time you walked out of his room. Whatever it is and whatever the consequence he would say, make sure your boss hears it from you first. Throughout his career he told me he ensured that his boss never had to discover his mistakes or worse, hear it from someone else.  So as soon as you have even an inkling that something is wrong, or you detect even the potential you might have messed up let your boss know quickly. My experience of this is that rather than limiting your boss’s confidence in you this approach can increase it. So, when it’s gone wrong or you foresee a problem look your boss in the eye and tell them what has happened. Great people verbalise their mistakes before someone else has to. Or as my mentor used to say “it’s easier to eat humble pie while it’s still warm.

2. Don’t understate the extent of the error
Whilst I am not a supporter of catastrophising or its negative impact on our motivations I learned early in my career that all too often things are nearly always worse than we first want to think they are going to be. It’s a natural reaction to underplay issues in the hope you weaken the impact of the problem, but it doesn’t work. My CEO in a large local authority made a point of ensuring his council leader received regular and comprehensive updates and if there was a problem, he made sure he told it as it really was and fully stated the seriousness of the situation and potential consequences. Even when issues had not fully materialised and situations may not escalate, he still operated his version of the “No Surprises” rule. As a learning and development manager I recall an occasion when my training officer let me down and understated a very serious problem. I still remember their words to me “it’s no big deal’ only for me to discover it was most definitely a big deal and one that had lengthy repercussions for our department but even more importantly I found my confidence in them dropped significantly. Whilst it is good when something doesn’t turn out to be as bad as you first thought real leaders own the seriousness of a situation so that no one else has to.

3. Offer the Most Complete Diagnosis You Can
Sitting in a Board meeting I watched what could have been a scene from a “Die Hard” movie as an exceptional finance director handled a major accounting error they had made. From the outset they owned the problem and not only accepted accountability they also ensured they were demonstrating from the very inception of the discovery that they were doing everything in their power to diagnose and remedy the situation. In spite of not having all the information they needed to make a full diagnosis their presentation to the rest of us on the Board that day clearly showed to all of us including the Chief Executive that they understood the significance of the error, they owned it and they were definitely part of the solution not part of the problem. As I briefly looked back towards the CEO it was clear from the look on his face that he had confidence in the FD to deal with this. Arthur Ashe the tennis player summed it up well when he said, “One important key to success is self-confidence and an important key to self-confidence is preparation.”

4. Fix the System, Not Just the Problem
Lastly, I learned from my time in policing that every situation is an opportunity and every problem is a potential gateway to greater understanding. During my time working in law enforcement I witnessed the development of an After-Action Review process that grew out of a major problem. The owner of the problem went well beyond basic debriefing to challenge the very systems that were in place in the organisation. Having accepted accountability for the problem that arose the senior officer went beyond resolving the issue and sought to ensure the organisation was getting the best possible results from its preferred operating model. At one of the earliest After-Action Reviews we were each asked assist them to understand what had happened. Their opening comments were both profound as they were enlightening as they asked each one of us in turn “was this really a completely unpreventable problem, or do we have a systems issue?”

For many you may feel this last suggestion is counterintuitive, all I can say is that on almost every occasion I have seen this put into operation there has been an aspect of working practices that has impacted on why the original problem arose or error was made. As a direct consequence of undertaking after action reviews, individuals are seen to have taken ownership of the problem, confidence in them grows and their advice is considered more influential.

Next time you discover you have possibly made a mistake why not try this approach. D M Neddermeyer once said “life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it

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